My Mom’s Experiences at Havana’s “Roach Motel” Hospital

Irina Echarry

A room at the Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — She was sweating buckets. An intense burning sensation in her chest was making her dizzy. She started to go cold and pale, and her lips took on that frightening purple tonality. Then, she passed out.

Despite this, when we got to the nearest polyclinic, the doctor on duty didn’t sound her with a stethoscope. We described the symptoms my mother had just shown. The doctor saw that she had walked into the clinic looking a little pale, so she said they first had to rule out a hypoglycemic episode and then anemia. In response to my demands and restlessness, she would continue chewing her gum and say: “Easy, love, easy. I know what I have to do.”

I felt bound hand and foot. Was I to yell, take my mother somewhere else, even if it were farther away? It was not the first time I’d had a delicate situation with the doctors at “my” polyclinic.

Finally, when she was good and ready, she gave my mother an electrocardiogram and fitted her with an oxygen mask. Immediately, my mother’s face regained its color. More than 40 minutes had already gone by and only a memory remained of the chest pain. The doctor found no reason to refer her to a hospital or to admit her to the polyclinic’s emergency ward. What’s more, it is impossible to catch anything that will take you out of Alamar at 3:00 in the morning.

We went home (and barely slept).

Morning found us at the cardiovascular hospital. There, employees smile, ask how you’re doing and are generally kind – from doctors, through nurses to janitors. I am of course referring to the emergency ward, where there are the material conditions needed for professionals and patients to feel comfortable.

There, she had more electrocardiograms and underwent all manner of (quick) tests. She was then taken to the observations ward.

At the waiting room, it felt strange to be in a hospital that didn’t feel oppressive. With the exception of a number of people who were worried about the seriousness of a relative’s condition, a sense of peace prevailed.

A few hours later, a professor of medicine confirmed that my mother ought to be admitted, particularly because of the syncope she had experienced the night before. But she had to be admitted at the hospital in our jurisdiction.

I couldn’t help but blurt out: “God, they’re going to admit my mother to the roach motel!”

Yes, we residents of Habana del Este must be admitted to the Calixto Garcia Clinical, Surgical and Teaching Hospital, popularly known as the “roach motel.”

A brief stay at this hospital’s emergency ward set the differences between the two health facilities in starker relief. The permanent presence of two police officers there reminded me that crime rates in Havana are not low.

Every so often, someone would burst into the ward yelling: “He’s bleeding to death, he’s bleeding to death, I need a stretcher!” First, we heard the screams of pain of a man with a dislocated tibia. Then came the heartrending cries of a young woman who learned of her mother’s death. Then, we saw a young man who had been struck on the head with a machete: he was being held up by the hands while he tried to articulate words that wouldn’t come out of his mouth. Blood everywhere, stretcher bearers that do not reply promptly to emergencies, loud-mouthed receptionists, collective hysteria. “Does my mother really need to be admitted here?” I thought.

The question was beginning to torment me when the doctor on duty came out to speak to relatives about emergency cases. The first feeling was relief: he believed there was nothing seriously wrong with my mother and that there was no reason to admit her. “We’re leaving!” I thought. Then I began to think that they were basing their diagnosis on how well she looked and downplaying the importance of what she experienced. The image of her deathly paleness came back to me.

“What if it happens again?” I thought.

Since she had arrived at the hospital referred from another hospital (the Cardiovascular Hospital), we had to wait for a specialist to examine her and confirm whether she was fit to go back home or not. Nearly two hours later, a cardiologist examined her and discovered some problems in the results of the electrocardiogram from the previous night.

So what happened? Exactly what you’re imagining: we had to stay in the “roach motel.”

It was painful watching the water pour out ceaselessly, what with the many families in Havana who suffer a shortage of water.

After decades of neglect, a slow, long-overdue restoration process is underway at the more than 100-year-old Calixto. The dilapidated halls are still there but, generally speaking, and in spite of the constructive mess it is in, the hospital is trying to put behind its reputation as a filthy, neglected place where cockroaches thrive unchecked, a reputation that has accompanied it for far too long. I can’t say it will manage to do so with any certainty. What I can say is that my mother received quality attention at the intensive and intermediate therapy ward.

Though located in Havana’s residential neighborhood of Vedado, the Calixto is a place frequented by humble patients, common folk who can’t afford medical services in hard currency and do not have friends in high places who can arrange these for them – hence the hustle-and-bustle of its emergency ward.

The hospital is not only known for its dilapidated state and its bugs. Its health professionals are also glorified by people.

The remodeling of the ward and purchase of new, quality equipment will likely make doctors, nurses and others at the coronary ward – in addition to highly knowledgeable and eager to continue learning – more affable and solicitous.

For an entire week, we saw them work, treat everyone equally and carry out their duties diligently despite the low wages they earn. It didn’t strike us as the kind of emotional blackmail that says: “I’m giving you a royal treatment so that you’ll pay me something later.”

In short, everyone was carrying out their duties and treating others well – the way things should always be but rarely are. They even held a meeting aimed at hearing the opinions patients and relatives had about the treatment they had receiving from doctors and their work in general.

I don’t know whether it was mere coincidence or if such meetings are held every so often, but, accustomed as people are to seeing their comments at meetings go nowhere, very few people expressed their opinions.

The coronary ward isn’t free from the shortcomings of the notorious hospital. Even though it was recently repaired, it has a number of deficiencies. As we all know, intensive care patients should not get out of bed, not even to urinate. However, there are no screens or room dividers in the ward so that patients can satisfy their physiological needs privately. I had to work miracles to scrub my mother’s body clean while keeping the man in the bed across from her from seeing her breasts.

I consider it dangerous that street venders come into the wards where patients in intermediate care are. Most of the time, they offer products that these patients should not eat.

The TV isn’t working. According to one of the doctors, patients and their relatives do not look after the ward and some even steal things like the remote control and bathroom fixtures. Since the television is propped up high on the wall, they started using a stick to press the on button…until they broke a hole through the TV. These practices may also explain why the shower in the ward my mother was in could never be shut off. It was painful watching the water pour out ceaselessly, what with the many families in Havana who suffer a shortage of water.

It is pointless to lay the blame on patients and their relatives and forget about the theft of resources by hospital employees – at this stage, all of that is secondary. If it continues to accumulate problems, the Calixto, despite its qualified professionals, will continue to be Havana’s “roach motel.”

Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.

22 thoughts on “My Mom’s Experiences at Havana’s “Roach Motel” Hospital

  • June 1, 2014 at 11:57 am

    Unfortunately I have, had to take a young lady for a medical condition (asthma), but I was impressed that I was able to talk to a doctor, no lack of fixture there. I have very good private insurance and I only wave at my doctor in the hall if I ever see him…aah capitalism!

  • June 1, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Look, no one is fully satisfied of living where he/she is. Since 2000 more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island (capitalist, with all the modernities etc.). By the way, the enslaved Africans sang as a way of affirming their own humanity. I know many Cubans who left, who are dying to return but now they sold their homes, will not have the same job they hand and would have to become cuentapropista. By the way, I am happy but I wish my life was different I am hoping to win the lottery and travel the world.

  • June 1, 2014 at 2:10 am

    Nice. Doesn’t change reality. Post a picture or confirmation.

  • May 31, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Bad analogy unless by abused you mean to say that the wife has for 55 years slammed her own head against the wall and justified it by saying that if she didn’t do it, her imperial husband would do worse to her.

  • May 31, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Would you blame an abused wife for her bruises?

  • May 31, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    My cousin Roberto Lenzano was a surgeon in Santiago for 30 years!!

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