Cuban Doctors: The Soldiers Who Defeated Ebola

By Fernando Ravsberg

Medical doctors being washed with chlorine after treating patients.
Medical doctors being washed with chlorine after treating patients.

HAVANA TIMES — As reports of three new Ebola cases arrive from Liberia, the medical doctor who headed Cuba’s largest campaign against the virus in Africa, Jorge Delgado, offered Publico an exclusive interview. Delgado is a veteran internationalist: “I have worked in Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau.”

“The UN requested aid from Cuba and other countries (some large and powerful). These may have supplied material and financial resources. I headed a team of 165 medical doctors in Sierra Leone. The average age of the doctors was 47, and many of them had previous [international] experience, so we began our work fully aware of the risks.

“Some relatives would tell us we were crazy for going there. It wasn’t just my family or the families of the 256 members of the medical team who were scared, the whole of Cuba was scared. Our press had divulged the terrible images of what was going on there and the whole of Cuba was on edge throughout the time we were working there.

Dr. Jorge Delgado headed the team of medical doctors who combatted Ebola in Sierra Leone. Doctors out on the field.
Dr. Jorge Delgado headed the team of medical doctors who combatted Ebola in Sierra Leone. Doctors out on the field.

“We knew that, in case of death, our remains could not be brought back to Cuba for five years. We knew that, if we fell in ‘combat’, we would be left there – that we were at war. We all signed that agreement before leaving and it was absolutely voluntary. Those who didn’t want to go on this mission had every right to turn it down and continue where they were and even opt for a different mission abroad. We had thousands of volunteers for the 256 spots on the team.

“It was an altruistic gesture: we would get a stipend, but there was no actual salary. During the meeting with the UN, the health minister said that this would be a solidarity effort and that Cuba would receive only a stipend to cover lodging and food.”

“We lost two doctors in the war against the virus. Jorge Juan Guerra, an economist, contracted cerebral malaria that killed him in 3 days, and Reinaldo Villafranca, a nurse, also contracted a deadly case of malaria. It was very sad and painful. The other case was that of Felix Baez, who contracted Ebola. It was hard to watch him become ill and see his condition worsen. We tested him for malaria and got a negative. At the British hospital, they tested him for Ebola and it came back positive. They conducted three tests on him, there was no doubt he had Ebola.

“The day Felix contracted the virus, he had been making superhuman efforts. He stayed to look after his patients longer, he spent 2 hours trying to help them and left rather weary. When you put on all of the protective gear, the body suit, you should work for an hour at most, during which time you lose about a liter of body fluids. The temperature was between 32 and 34 degrees. We would work for an hour and then rest a while.

Dr. Felix Baez was the one doctor who contracted Ebola, survived and returned to Sierra Leone to continue working.
Dr. Felix Baez was the one doctor who contracted Ebola, survived and returned to Sierra Leone to continue working.

“In the hot zones, we always had 2 or 3 doctors working together, so that, if anyone began to feel sick, the others could get him or her out. When we put on our suits, we had to ensure there were no openings where the virus could seep through. The hardest part was taking the suit off after one had touched the patients, after handling, bathing, feeding and looking after them, cleaning their feces and blood. You had to be meticulous when taking off the suit. First, you were bathed in chlorine and then you began to take everything off very slowly. We wore three sets of gloves, we were heavily protected. One of us would monitor the other and remind him of every step, even after having gone through these 50 times.”

Rubbing Elbows With the Enemy

“In Sierra Leone, we had an Ebola treatment center, where we worked next to the US non-profit organization Partners in Health. We worked closely as professionals and doctors, exchanging scientific reports every morning after our shifts. We would send each other emails and we made friends, as the photos show. We planted a tree of life, a small mango tree right outside the center. We would tie a colored ribbon to it every time we saved a patient.

Cuban medical doctors are helped into their “suits of armor” before going into combat.

“This happened despite the fact the United States offers an express visa program to Cuban medical doctors who wish to leave their teams and emigrate to the United States, where the vast majority aren’t allowed to practice medicine. They do it only to try and weaken us, but every medical doctor who joined the Ebola campaign returned to Cuba.

“At any rate, Cuban doctors can legally and officially immigrate to the United States. This is their right, even though it has a negative impact on Cuba, when you lose a good surgeon, for instance. You also have to consider those doctors who retire or pass away. Cuba trains many doctors it later loses. Last July, more than 8,000 students completed medical school, and 10,000 are currently enrolled this year.”

Cuban doctors, ready to go into combat.

After several months of work in Africa, Cuba’s medical brigade managed to save 381 people who had contracted the Ebola virus, while thousands died under their humane care. Working with European and US NGOs, Cuban professionals managed to halt the spread of the epidemic. This army of “white coats” began its international efforts in Algeria in 1963 and, today, its “troops” save lives in more than 60 countries around the world.

Even US Secretary of State John Kerry praised the work of Cuban doctors in Africa. Despite this, that country’s policy has not changed: the program aimed at encouraging Cuban physicians to leave their brigades and emigrate to the United States is still in effect. Ironically, Cuba’s medical brigade bears the name of a young American, Henry Reeve, who took part in Cuba’s war of independence.

17 thoughts on “Cuban Doctors: The Soldiers Who Defeated Ebola

  • I will take your comment as sarcasm. Ironically though, there are at 5,000 Cubans in Costa Rica and Panama who would love to be in Honduras about now.

  • Losing 20% of the professional class is a significant, if not large, number of people. Minimizing the importance of this defection and worse yet, blaming the US for it, speaks to my earlier ‘happy face’ comment. It is both significant and the MAJORITY of the blame rest with the Castro dictatorship. There’s reason that other poor Latin American countries, say Honduras, are not treated the same way. Honduras has never tried to provoke the launching of nuclear weapons against NY, Washington DC, and other US cities.

  • Who is painting happy faces on anything? Who’s being optimistic?
    If you take off your blindfold for one moment and look at reality, you’ll notice that the the vast majority of Cuban doctors choose to stay in Cuba – or in the countries where they are deployed – in spite of the preferential treatment that the USA offers them, which is an open affront to Cuba.
    To you this preferential treatment proves that Cuba is a socialist hellhole of oppression, whereas the citizens of any other Latin American country trying to get into the USA, without the benefit of preferential treatment, never seem to reflect on the SYSTEM, i.e. the kind of societies American intervention, military or otherwise, has created in the US ‘backyard’.

  • “Cuba has lost at least 20% of its professional class to outmigration.”
    Yes, that is how the market economy works: When health is a commodity, it ends up being supplied to the rich, and poor people who cannot pay for it have to do (= die) without. This is the reason why countries like Poland lose their medical doctor to countries like the UK or Denmark:
    Cuba remains the exception in this miserable world of pandering to the rich and powerful.
    It is no wonder that many Cuban doctors are tempted by the offers to go to the USA. I admire the ones who choose to stay in Cuba so much more.

  • Your comments reflect an ignorance of Cuban reality. You implied that the poor living conditions in Cuba would NOT be sufficient to motivate a Cuban doctor to want to leave Cuba. I chose to give you the benefit of the doubt and blame your blindness of that reality on not having met any Cuban doctors as opposed to, well, ignorance. Cuba has lost at least 20% of its professional class to outmigration. Yet, Castro sycophants, like you, continue to paint ‘happy faces’ on the situation in Cuba by using words like “struggle”, “dignity”, and “brave”. My comment is a reference to that kind of unrealistic optimism.

  • PS
    Something just occurred to me:
    Are you familiar with this fact of the modern, globalized market economy? That rich countries avoid paying for the rather expensive education of a sufficient number of medical doctors because its cheaper to import them from poor(er) countries …
    The UK is not the only country to do so. Denmark does the exact same thing with medical doctors from Poland. Not only have I met Cuban doctors; i’ve even met US citizens who received free education at one of Cuba’s many international schools of medicine.

  • Over the years, I’ve met a number of Cuban doctors – mainly in the brigades. What makes you think that you “can tell” that I “don’t know any?”
    And why would anybody, apart from the hardliners in Miami and their political friends in the USA, “believe that losing 20% of your population to legal and illegal outmigration is a good thing?”

  • If you believe that losing 20% of your population to legal and illegal outmigration is a good thing, then I suppose so. I can tell, however, that you don’t know any Cuban doctors.

  • My point is to counter your notion that “The Castros have created a situation in Cuba where Doctors would help patients in Hell to improve conditions for themselves and their families” with a reference to the fact that ‘the Castros,’ along with the rest of the Cuban population who struggled trying to make the Cuban revolution successful, have managed to produce this number of medical doctors, enough, actually, to have them work abroad fighting scourges like the ebola epidemic.
    It really says it all that the vast majority of these doctors choose to return to Cuba, in spite of the tempting offers “to ply their trade in the US” after “additional training.”

  • What’s your point?

  • “Cuba has an abundance of physicians, thanks to Fidel Castro’s strong convictions in the value of developing his nation’s medical capacities. While Cuba had just 750 doctors in the 1960s, thanks to a disproportionate subsequent allocation of state cash to good, free, and universal healthcare, the island now has tens of thousands of doctors with clinics in just about every community. That amounts to up to double the number of physicians per capita than in America, and a far better distribution of medical knowledge.”

    The USA, of course, will not see this “abundance of physicians” as an example of Cuba’s (i.e. “the Castros”) superior educational system. To the USA it constitutes a cheap resource to be exploited!

  • Clap, clap, clap. You seem to believe passionately what you write. It is a shame that you are mostly wrong. Particularly about American doctors. They did go to Pakistan and Haiti. What you are neglecting to consider is that the US is a free country. The US President can’t send doctors anywhere, except those in the military. So where American doctors have gone, they are TRULY volunteers. Moreover, my comments do not intend to disparage Cuban altruism. I’m sure that Cuban doctors have a significant measure of goodwill in their hearts while they serve on these medical brigades. But a few extra CUC helps too. One the other hand, when an American doctor works in Africa, you can be sure he takes a significant PAY CUT. That level of commitment is unimpugnable. Finally, I simply stated a fact. Cuban-trained doctors do not meet the academic standards required to practice medicine in the US. Are Cuban doctors talented? Sure they are and do indeed meet an otherwise unmet need in many third world countries. But to hang a a shingle in the US, they need more schooling. By the way, you have no idea how I feel about anything or anybody but the Castros.

  • Moses, When an earthquake occurred in the remotest part of Pakistan, it was the Cuban Doctors who journeyed to that country to assist the inhabitants there. Where were the Americans?. Where were the Americans when Haiti was devastated the other day? When Katrina devastated New Orleans, Cuba offered to send that same Medical Brigade which went to Africa. Did the Cubans, in offering their service ever ask for one cent? It is the Americans who went for the money and not the Cubans. You have the shoe on the wrong foot Moses. The Cubans deal with people. They are humanistic. They care about their fellow men and women. They are all over in the remotest parts of the globe looking after the health of people. Americans would never dare journey to these parts. Cuba trains its Doctors to survive anywhere. American Doctors are materialistic. They only see money. The accumulation of wealth is what drives them. They are not Good Samaritans like the Cubans. Your attempt to degrade the training Cuban Doctors receive shows you up for the bigot you are, for, when Cuban trained Doctors go to the United States to Specialize they are given high ratings for the Cuban training is top of the ladder. You are a person who is bared to the bones of any human feelings.You are of the belief that people like you, the oligarchs, should live well and that people beneath you should catch hell. I am working class Moses. I need you to give me a job, but you also need my Labour to help you amass wealth. The clothes you wear Moses, did you
    stitch them together? The food you eat, you did not grow it? The house you reside in, you did not build it? The vehicle you drive, did you manufacture it? Every one of us is an important spoke in the wheel of life Moses. No one man is an island; we are totally dependent on each other. Come from off your high horse and recognize the contribution each of us contributess to the advancement of the world and to the development of our fellow men and women. You only see wealth and riches and you will plunder, oppress, dehumanize to get them for you believe that Divine Manifestation has created you to enjoy them. Don’t I have the right to the same privileges that you enjoy? what makes you better than me Moses?. The Cubans see the human worth in all persons.They train the professionals of the third world, people, who, in America, would remain in ignorance or unable to access a good education for lack of funds, The Cubans believe that all men were created equal and that all of us should enjoy the fruits of the land for all men are important. All have their contribution to make!!..

  • There’s so much wrong in your comment, I struggle to know where to begin. First, read my comment again. I applaud the Cubans who signed up to join the international community on combating this deadly virus. Second, my criticism is the tone of this post, not of the Cuban effort. It reads as if there were no other doctors from other countries making the same contributions. The truth is, like everyone else in the field, they were paid for their contributions. We can only speculate if they would have made the same contribution for free. By the way, your personal aspersions against me are not necessary to present your arguments and beneath this discussion. I don’t agree with you regarding the nobility of the Cuban medical brigade. Here in California, prison inmates are given an opportunity during fire season to work as forest firefighters. Are they brave? Sure. Are they noble? Not so much. They are given time off their sentences, paid a nominal salary, and given a chance to get out the prison. Given these benefits, and considering their circumstances, they are highly motivated. Would they do it without the incentives? Who knows. Cuban doctors, are uniquely motivated as well. They earn about $50 a month in Cuba. The Ebola doctors earned 10 times that amount. The Castros have created a situation in Cuba where Doctors would help patients in Hell to improve conditions for themselves and their families. Finally, Cuban doctors, by US medical education standards are undertrained. They do not quality to practice medicine in the US without additional classroom and field study. After completing this additional training, Cuban MDs are welcome to ply their trade in the US.

  • Moses, Is there one ounce of human feeling existing in you for the heroic effort of the Medical Brigade which bore the brunt of the war on Ebola? These people are not interested in accumulating wealth, they are interested in saving lives: They travel to the remotest parts of the globe to perform Good Samaritan Service to mankind. Is there no hurrah for them Moses? You are showing up yourself to be a zombie devoid of human feelings for your fellow men and women. You are a ticking time bomb of nuclear hatred for anything Cuban. Even if the UN was not paying anything the Cubans would have gone any how. Despite the fact that these Doctors were performing an heroic act, yet, migration to the so-called land of the free was still dangled in front of them. Look at the policy of your government Moses. The Cubans are in Africa risking their own lives to save lives and your country which does not have a Medical Brigade to the equivalent of Cuba’s is encouraging them to abandon their humanistic duties for a paltry visa to go to the United States where they cannot practice their Medical Skills. Human Rights at its best!!

  • Eloquently written puff piece. If you didn’t know any better, after reading this post, you would think that Cuban doctors nearly did the work all by themselves. The 165 medical professionals including nurses and other medical staff. Fernando should recheck his numbers. To be very clear, Cuban doctors made an invaluable contribution to the effort to contain the epidemic. So did the French, the Germans, the Canadians, and finally the Americans. So did the companies that supplied the uniforms and the other medical equipment and the company that provided the food they ate, and so on. All played an integral role in saving lives and keeping the virus from spreading. Finally, before that altruistic drum is beaten too loudly, it should be mentioned that even if the Cuban medical staff were not paid a king’s ransom for their services, their pimp, the Castros made off pretty well. The UN paid more than $7000 per month per doctor. Not exactly charity work.

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