My First Day in a Place Called Sanitarium / Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada

Havana, Cuba: today I want to remember with each of our readers that first day when I went with my mother and a nurse to enter a Sanatorium for HIV/AIDS patients in Santa Clara.

It was Thursday, January 11, 2001, I had awakened early in my hometown of Santo Domingo, 32 miles from Santa Clara. I knew that soon after getting up would have to take this journey, accompanied by my thin mother and the nurse from my clinic. We made our way in one of those old cars that circulate through the creativity and the invention of their handlers. The car was noted for going through the red light on the only stoplight that despite the weather persisted in giving way to medical emergencies.

After an hour and thirty minutes we entered the city, about 10 minutes after arriving in Santa Clara, the ambulance sounded its horn announcing its presence at the door of the hospital that would shelter me for more than three years.

The walls, all red brick, blended with the color of its roofs of mud; we were greeted first by a custodian, which in a less than friendly way stripped us of every document and seized our belongings carefully, looking for electronic equipment as telephones, video cameras, cameras or recorders. The search was the first failure by one of the many policemen who, for three years, I had to deal with.

After this unpleasant experience we were guided a few meters from the hut of the trustees to the visiting and pass control area. We had to wait about an hour, and while waiting a silence came over us, and we noticed that each time we were observed by those who went through the place like a rare thing. From the office someone who wore white clothes came out, and brought with him a document, but didn’t come where we were. He continued his walk going into various departments, minutes later, other people in white coats were passing us on the way to hospital offices.

At last we were called by the receptionist, at the table sat an epidemiologist, a specialist in general medicine, a dentist, the assistant director of nursing, the clinical laboratory chief, the head of physical protection, the department head accompanying a social service worker, the administrator and the end of the table a person with skin as black as your soul, Dr. Rule of Charity Pobeda Rodriguez. I have never been racist but shortly after my arrival I realized that all the evil that accompanied him.

The reception was shorter than the travel time and waiting, words of welcome and hospitality they had none, all that was jumping from the mouth of those present were warnings and threats. The last thing they told me is to learn to see this place as my home, and to accept each of the people who lived there as a new family.

I got a few minutes with my mother and then she had to go home. She parted with tears in her eyes. I, man and homosexual, only told her to go home at peace, here all is well.

For me it was starting a new life, I’ve always been away from home, traveling the world in adventures that one day I’ll share with you. It was my first day as an inmate at a place called Sanitarium.

I went through each of their areas, then I was accompanied by the head of service to the store, there given two yellow sheets, which which I had to sign for as white, a toothbrush, a towel,  an aluminum bucket, and for personal care they gave me a bit of detergent, bath soap that apparently was of Chinese origin and a toothpaste. All this I had to sign for, as they warned me that the loss of any of the items delivered by them would have to be answered for before a disciplinary board.

After leaving the warehouse area I went up to the cabins assigned to me.

As I walked people were hanging out their windows to see the new person coming, I always ran into people I know. One of those I knew was John Paul, a friend who, soon after my arrival, died as a result of an opportunistic infection.

Juan Pablo Dignora accompanied me along with the Head of Service to where I was assigned in  one of the buildings. The grounds were covered with a thick green grass. The path that allowed me access to the building was narrow, standing in front of the last of the five buildings they told me the last one was my destination. The ladder was composed of heavy pieces of granite, wrought iron railings and plain wooden handrails. I was on the second floor, each apartment was designed for four people and was composed of a hall, a pantry, bathroom and two bedrooms, each of these was for two people of the same sex.

My first roommate was named Germán. At first not agreeable, spending some hours listening to the first words.

Facing my room was the room of Belkis Leal and her companion, today no matter how hard I try I can’t remember her name. I only know that they loved each other until one day when infidelity arrived Belkis’s partner betrayed her, as on so many occasions. Belkis felt hurt more than ever on this occasion, her ex left her for a man, this was a scandal as something that is whispered in the mass media.

Well, it was my first day and my first night in a place unknown to me and my family.

All the while I was looking out the windows and looking over each part not only of the room but I toured the sanatorium until late at night. On my first evening walk someone showed me a gun, thinking that I wanted to leave the area or that I had entered as many did, illegally. Unaware that I was a new case, hospitalized during the day, the experience was unpleasant. My legs were shaking and my voice and I couldn’t hear the questions of the guard, the gun a metallic color in the moonlight.

At the shouts of the guard the rest of the group came, all with guns at the waist, one of which led me to the guard booth who asked me my name and then verifying the truth of what I had already answered before he apologized. That was a shock, I never imagined that unlike other hospitals this one was guarded by security guards with handguns.

A total of five officers took turns twice a day, all former members of the Interior Ministry (MINIT), National Revolutionary Police (PNR), Technical Investigation Department (DTI) and even anti-aircraft forces or Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), some were demobilized, others retirees. Arrogance was their most faithful weapon, I only remember one of them laughing, Triana is his name.

So I want to begin to relate my first day in the place called Sanitarium.

I know many are wondering what was the path before reaching this place, and how did I get sick? These questions have their answers.

March 19 2012