HAVANA TIMES — I must confess I feel a profound aversion towards hospitals and polyclinics. This is not only because of the physical pain, misdiagnoses, indifference or mistreatment I have experienced in these, but also because of the association my mind invariably makes between these places and the time spent in waiting rooms.
Hours upon hours of waiting, feeling sick, shifting on an uncomfortable seat or worrying about my son’s illness. Waiting while I watch him cough, complain, cry, among other kids who also cry, and adults who completely disregard the sign posted in some emergency wards: “Please speak in a low tone of voice.”
Speaking rather more loudly than suggested, they converse, enumerate all manner of calamities, reprimand their kids and even argue about whose turn comes next.
Waiting time and that smell characteristic of hospitals, which I know only too well thanks to my frequent, asthma-related admittances as a child, have taken root deep in my subconscious.
Of course, I also have memories of the kind treatment I received from some of the hospital staff, of thoughtful gestures that moved me. At one point, I even reflected on how strange it was that, by a random twist of fate (or by providence), a stranger should care for me at a moment of pain.
As I’ve grown older, and Cuba’s health system has deteriorated, I have become so ill-disposed towards hospitals that I go to the doctor only when I have absolutely no other choice.
This morning, the symptoms of a kidney infection became so acute that I decided it was one of those moments when I didn’t have a choice. So, I went to the family doctor’s clinic, well equipped for the inevitable wait with a book by one of the “loves of my life”: the Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato.
I have to admit a family clinic does not have the aggressive atmosphere typical of a hospital’s emergency ward. Emergencies are rare there and, as I was able to appreciate today, many people go to these clinics just to get a prescription, pick up medical test results or get their blood pressure measured.
That said, you still need to wait long before you can see the doctor, and venturing into Sábato’s universe was made rather difficult by the far from “low” tone of voice with which those around me conversed.
Interestingly enough, all of the people in the waiting room (twelve in total) were women. Seeing the irritation over the long wait in their faces – they began to protest when the second pregnant woman entered the doctor’s office, aware of how long those consultations generally take – I got to thinking, as I have done on other occasions, that the healthcare demand exceeds the offer in Cuba today.
I began looking at the walls, the bulletin boards showing information about breastfeeding, about the need to boil or sterilize tap water using “1 % Sodium Hypochlorite”. I was in pain, I needed to pee, I felt fatigue. But I returned to Sábato, to the words of a book he wrote in the twilight of his days, at the behest of those who insisted he write his memoirs before departing.
He was a man who, like many others, had believed that socialism held the answer to the world’s social injustices, who had the courage to condemn the horrors of Stalinism, who once wrote: “the one miracle capitalism has achieved is having concentrated more than eighty percent of all existing wealth in one fifth of the world’s population.”
A man who suffered because, every two seconds, a child dies of hunger, who suffered over the young men and women who wrote him in despair, looking for an answer that would give them a sound reason not to commit suicide. A man who was fond of quoting Strindberg, who said: “I do not detest human beings, I am afraid of them.”
At the end of this book, Sabato, a man who confessed that he doubted the validity of the arguments with which he had tried to find some meaning to human existence, addresses those who had asked him to write it: “Let us go out into the world, put our lives at risk for others, let us hope, with those who stretch out their arms, that a new wave of history will raise us from the ground. Maybe this is already happening in a silent and subterranean way, like the springs that throb beneath the frozen landscapes of the winter.”
These words were knocking around my head when, finally, it was my turn to see the doctor. She prescribed a preventive treatment for the kidney infection, based on the symptoms I was already showing.
While sitting on a park bench with my son, waiting for the results of the blood test I had done at the polyclinic, in spite of the pain and the shivers that crawled up my body, I felt relieved. And it wasn’t exclusively thanks to Sabato. The doctor and lab technician who had, perhaps unwittingly, fulfilled their humble duties, were also responsible for this feeling.
I felt relieved, above all else, thanks to the need to cling to hope, which survives crises and catastrophes, the need to trust others, to not give in, which is inherent to human beings and stronger than any disheartening memory. As strong, at least, as our aversion towards discomfort, indifference or cruely.
And I thought: if only people, little by little, acknowledged this side of themselves (and not necessarily through a rational deduction, but, rather, through an instinctive appreciation of their own nature), how profoundly the world would change! How profoundly Cuba would change!
After all, most of us who criticize this country so much (even here, on the pages of the Havana Times), do it precisely because we cling to hope.