A Look at Cuba’s Healthcare System: Firsthand Examples

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

A selfie with my nephew.

HAVANA TIMES – A few days ago, my nephew Enrique had an emergency operation at the Mayari hospital because of an appendicitis. He had spent a few days going to the see the doctor and healers because of the pain and general discomfort, without results. The prescriptions couldn’t be found in drugstores, and while you could find the medicinal plants, they were unable to alleviate the pain.

One night, he was in so much pain that he was rushed to the doctor’s office, and there was absolutely nothing that could help his pain. His parents called many friends out of desperation until bingo!: somebody had Cimetidine and they went to pick it up. He was given an IV and he felt better. However, they didn’t discover what exactly it was that was wrong with him.

The appendicitis didn’t figure in the diagnosis, and they even massaged his belly. A practice that we have inherited from our native people, who would touch everything, according to conquistadores’ chronicles. It’s a good practice really, but it can be dangerous in this specific case. In the end, a laparoscopy (it’s best not to tell you how we reached this possibility), revealed the appendicitis and the decision was made to operate.

When I found out, I ran to the hospital, and between being worried and impasses of pain, I took a selfie with him. I admit it was a bit morbid, because it wasn’t a pleasant moment to remember. But being a journalist forced me to sway a little, so I did, because pain is an inevitable part of life at the end of the day.

I was there two hours or so with him, and they couldn’t take him up to the operation waiting room because the catheters they had wouldn’t enter his urethra, because they were so thick. His wife was a nurse, although she doesn’t practice anymore, and she tried to introduce it herself, but without any luck.

We could hear the moans outside, which he had tried to stifle, but we could hear him. We were really worried that something could burst inside him and he’d have a peritonitis. We began to make some phone calls, trying to find a human catheter outside the hospital (sounds absurd right?) that would fit him, because the one they had seemed like it was for horses.

Luckily, we found a timely donor and I went on my bike to get it, and he had it on him in a matter of seconds. Clearly, his urethra hurt him a lot because of all the attempts with the other one. Everything else went really quickly and went well, luckily. He had to stay in hospital for seven days afterwards, because there weren’t any antibiotics in the drugstore, and they had them at the hospital at the time (which they don’t have a lot of the time).

However, after four days he was sent home to finish his treatment because COVID-19 cases had surged and there was a “superior order” to decongest hospitals, but he was given antibiotics. Which is a lot more comfortable, but it’s unusual now. Well, my nephew’s urethra still hurts, but he managed to get treated and he’s alive without the all-encompassing pain he had before.

The sad situation of the woman next to my nephew.

However, it was a lot harder to see the treatment of an elderly woman next to him, who had hurt her knee that day. Her case was very sad and unfortunate. She had fallen down, almost over her own feet, a foolish thing apparently, and they “patched-up” her knee at the hospital, as we say in fine Cuban. However, she wasn’t given antibiotics because they didn’t have any at the drugstore and they didn’t admit her into hospital because they didn’t have any at the time either. So, she went home.

According to her relatives, her knee became infected and now they have to treat it regularly with what we commonly call “horse treatment”, for a while, so she can get back to how she was before: let her kneecap settle and carry on with antibiotics. The poor old woman has fewer chances of recovering normal mobility in her knee now, after the infection and handling.

A neighbor fell off his horse less than a week ago, and he didn’t know how serious it was. We called an ambulance, but there weren’t any, just the promise of waiting to see if one came in from Holguin to send it out. With lockdown restrictions, nobody can circulate after 3 PM, but a driver dared to take him, and while it wasn’t the best option, it was the only one we had. It didn’t serve much good though in the end, the hospital didn’t have any X-ray material, or painkillers, or anti-inflammatories. Neither at the hospital or in drugstores.

There are dozens of examples like this every month here in this municipality, and thousands of examples across the country. Our health system has been excellently designed (we have to give credit where it’s due!) and it’s worth holding onto when the country moves towards political democracy, economic freedom and full enjoyment of human rights. However, just as our country is in ruins, so is our health system.

If the system doesn’t work, not even the little bit that serves of the system will work. It’s painful to see what is happening to our people in terms of healthcare, without medicines or diagnosis methods, or decent conditions in hospitals. It’s also hard to see the conditions our health professionals have to work in. Not to mention the situation now with COVID-19.

Read more from Osmel Ramirez here on Havana Times.

3 thoughts on “A Look at Cuba’s Healthcare System: Firsthand Examples

  • I am sorry you and your family experienced this medical emergency. Aside from the topic and the sad state
    of Cuban medical care, you write beautifully, with a clear and fluid style. I’ve visited Cuba several times as a tourist–the last time in 2017. On one visit to Eastern Cuba I remember traveling by bus from Guardalavaca to Banes, which I think is close to Mayari. I admire Cuba’s culture and people; Cubans deserve much more from those in power. I wish you the best. Stay safe and please continue to write.

  • I am also confused…. Biden ‘s press secretary said yesterday when responding to a question about the embargo, she said US still sends medical supplies to Cuba. Apparently the embargo does not include this. Regarding the embargo, Trump tightened the screws, labelled Cuba a terrorist state, and I noticed the rise of anger to new heights in past year… as syringes and COVID testing materials got very low , then ELSA hit, then the electrical outages more than the 4 hours a day first planned, the long lines at food stores causing more spread of COVID, even as Manuel Diaz Canel blasted the citizens for spreading COVID.. If i was one who had to stand in line for hours for basics, and our PM complained about us spreading the virus this way, i would have NO hesitancy risking jail to scream in rage too.

  • An honest question: why are there no medications in hospitals and pharmacies? Are they not manufactured locally, or are there no components? Any other reason?
    I hope your nephew is all right by now!

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