Patients Go Through an Ordeal To Be Treated in the Calamitous Cuban Hospitals

A doctor working without light, in a polyclinic in Centro Habana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Olea Gallardo, Havana, November 30, 2023 — The bursting into tears last Monday of Dr. Yoandra Quesada de Bayamo (Granma), who is being tried along with five other colleagues for the death of a 23-year-old patient, is nothing but the vivid image of what remains of healthcare in Cuba, the eternal jewel in the crown for revolutionary propaganda.

What the surgeon said to the journalist Ernesto Morales – “all your colleagues leave, you are working alone and without materials, exposed to being killed one day by a desperate relative” – is verified daily by any Cuban who steps into a healthcare center. The situation of primary services is especially dramatic.

“There are no syringes, there are no reagents for the tests, there are no nozzles to give aerosol, there are no esfigmos [sphygmomanometers] to take blood pressure.” Aleida, who unravels this litany, is still young, but she is beginning to have problems with hypertension, a condition that leads to the number one cause of death on the Island.

“One day when I arrived at the hospital with high blood pressure, they wanted to give me oxygen, but there were no mouthpieces, so the doctor gave me the hose and said: ’don’t put it in your mouth, put it close, so that you feel the oxygen.’” Aleida couldn’t do it, because of the stench that the instrument gave off and out of shame. “I took it and told him: look, this doesn’t smell good. But in addition, I felt ridiculous, with that oxygen escaping everywhere.”

That day, she was lucky, because she usually has to walk miles and make a pilgrimage through several centers before finding one where a device to measure blood pressure is available. “The first time I went to the polyclinic near my house, where there were no esfigmos anywhere, the doctor told me: I can’t take your pressure, little girl, but come and sit here, the only thing I can give you is a long talk.’”

There are no syringes, there are no reagents for the analyses, there are no nozzles to give aerosol, there are no sphygmomanometers to take blood pressure

Who does have sphygmomanometers? “Foreign residents often have them and are always given a more pleasant treatment than Cubans by the way,” says Aleida. Faced with the exodus of specialists, outside the Island or to other jobs that provide them with better salaries, the Government tries to solve the lack of labor with exchange students, who cover the emergency rooms.

Luis, who is only 40, is frightened. He has been urinating blood for a few weeks and still doesn’t have the results of the tests he was finally encouraged to do. He was unsuccessful the first time he went to the hospital because “they didn’t have reagents,” but they did the second time. “But then I had to bring the syringe myself because they didn’t have them either.” Now he waits anxiously for an appointment with a specialist: in eight months.

Mild diseases and once-luxurious centers are not spared from the debacle. The 19 de Abril polyclinic, in Nuevo Vedado, for example, the favorite place to take foreign visitors on an official trip to the Island, has serious infrastructure problems.

“There are cracks at a 45-degree angle on several important walls, even cracks that can be seen on both sides of a window,” observes Juan, who for many years dedicated himself to construction and recently had to go to that health center for rehabilitation due to a dislocation. “The building was built during the Revolution, so it is no more than 65 years old.”

The wave of indignation over the trial of the six doctors of the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes hospital accused of negligence not only made the Ministry of Public Health react, which had to clarify that the process is carried out “with adherence to the guarantees established in the laws,” but continues to have echoes.

In the face of the exodus of specialists, the Government tries to solve the lack of manpower with exchange students, who cover the emergency rooms

Thus, in the midst of the controversy, the Communist Party of Cuba in Granma province decided this Wednesday to dismiss its first secretary, Yanaisi Capó Nápoles, and to put in Yudelkis Ortiz Barceló instead. The official press did not detail the reasons and highlighted Ortiz Barceló, who comes from being a member of the Executive Bureau to “attend to ideological political activity” in the Provincial Committee of the PCC in Santiago de Cuba.

This Wednesday, four doctors residing abroad signed a harsh letter addressed to José Ángel Portal Miranda, Minister of Health, in which they sympathize with the doctors “unjustly accused.” The letter, signed by Alexander Jesús Figueredo Izaguirre, Arnoldo de la Cruz Bañoble, Sergio Barbolla Verdecia and Jorge David Yaugel, describes what happened in Bayamo as a “national shame.”

“The accusers should point out those really responsible for that death. These doctors are also victims of the conflict between their professional commitment and the impossibility of succeeding in the conditions in which they are forced to treat their patients,” the doctors said in the text. “The ones responsible for diverting the resources provided by the medical brigades” are the ones who should appear before the courts.

The regime has received “billions of dollars” in the last decade, money that “has not been invested in the Cuban health system as was argued at the time to justify the arbitrary deduction of between 70% and 90% of the salaries* of the brigade members during all these years.” With this, they continue, “there would have been more to keep the health system in optimal conditions and pay decent wages to professionals in the sector.”

These doctors are also victims of the conflict between their professional commitment and the impossibility of succeeding in the conditions in which they are forced to treat their patients

Among their demands is that from now on they pay health workers “the full salary when we go out to provide services to other countries and not just give us a minimum stipend from it,” as well as an “immediate” salary increase for all those who work in the health system.

They also commented on the case of Amelia Calzadilla, who from Spain, where she managed to escape a little more than two weeks ago, asks doctors to refuse to work in such terrible conditions.

She is not the only one who thinks like that on the Island. “The situation requires a general strike, but if you say this in public they’ll put me in prison.” The woman, who doesn’t want to be more precise, predicts: “One day everything will stop working; the doctors will not go to the hospital to work; the teachers will not go to school; the ration-store shopkeepers will not take care of the ration stores; and then the system will collapse. Because if there’s nothing anywhere, what’s the point of all this?”

*Translator’s note: Cuban medical personnel serving on ’brigades’ or ’missions’ in foreign countries are paid a very small percentage of what those countries pay Cuba for their services.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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