Olga notes the plaque outside the room where she cared for Che. Photo: Ronald Suárez Rivas

PINAR DEL RÍO.–What the dictatorship's troops were unable to accomplish during so many battles in the Sierra Maestra, or during the march of Che's column from Cuba's eastern mountains to the Escambray, or the Las Villas campaign, almost occurred on the morning of April 17, 1961.

While the entire country was mobilized to defeat the mercenary invasion taking place in Playa Girón on the Bay of Pigs, a shot that passed through his cheek almost ended the life of Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara.

He had arrived in Pinar del Río, on the orders of the country's highest leadership, to take command of military forces in the province, given the imminent danger of an invasion.

In the former headquarters of the Rural Guard in Consolación del Sur (where the municipal hospital is located today) Che established his Rebel Army Command, from where he stayed abreast of the events unfolding.

Dámaso Raúl Sánchez, a Military Counterintelligence soldier at the time, reports that shortly after a meeting with his chiefs of staff, the heroic guerrilla walked out of his office adjusting his holster, and tripped on a water pipe that was not buried.

"I was in the doorway of my office, observing him, because Che was a striking figure," he explained.

The belt fell to the ground and his pistol, which always had a bullet in the barrel, let go a shot that injured his face.

Sánchez recalled that Che collapsed, and blood was pouring from the wound, but within a few minutes, as they were accommodating him in the back seat of a car, he regained consciousness and asked who had shot him.

"He was not aware that he himself had provoked the accident," Sánchez noted.

Miraculously, the bullet entered below his right cheekbone, and exited near his ear, without damaging any important nerve or artery.

In León Cuervo Rubio Hospital in the city of Pinar del Río, some 21 kilometers from Consolación del Sur, Segundo Cecilio González, the emergency room nurse at the time, remembers that he received a call informing him that a leader of the Revolution had been wounded, and was on his way.

"Che got out of the car, and entered walking on his own, covering the wound with a handkerchief, but we convinced him to let us take him on a stretcher to the operating room, where the surgeon was waiting," González recounts.

"The surgical nurse asked me to assist. Everything went very quickly. The edges (of the wound) were regularized and they gave him a couple of stitches to control the bleeding, without anesthesia, because Che said he was asthmatic and did not allow them to administer it.

"Then, it was up to me to take him, in the elevator, on the stretcher, to a room that had been prepared for him, and where he stayed until he left the following day."

Olga Luisa Alarcón, the nurse charged with caring for him during the time he was recuperating, said that, although it was not a severe wound, he needed to be given a tetanus shot, and Che was asthmatic and allergic.

Thus, she explained, she decided to administer the vaccine in several smaller doses, to avoid a reaction.

During the time he stayed in the hospital, Olga recalled that Comandante Guevara lamented having to be there, leaving the position he had been assigned, saying, "This mortified him."

Even when a compañero at the Rebel Army Command Post came to see him, Che scolded him, saying that if he couldn't be there, the man was obliged to stay put, Olga continued.

"Although we always treat everyone well, whoever they may be, with him a great effort was made, given what he represented for the Revolution," said the nurse, who at 95 years of age has never forgotten the hours she spent at the side of one of the most beloved heroes of the Cuban people.

"For me it was an honor to have cared for him, given that he was such a necessary person and such a friend of Fidel," Olga added.

González, for his part, confides that he never thought he would encounter a leader like Che is such circumstances.

"His phenomenal composure impressed me, despite not receiving any anesthesia. He rested there stoically and waited for us to finish treating him. The only sign of pain I saw was that he moved his toes, but bearing it. At no point did he complain."

In front of the room where Che rested after being treated, in the León Cuervo Rubio Hospital, a plaque hangs, recalling the event which fortunately had no great consequences, but is among the many episodes that unite Che with the Vueltabajo region, since history is also made of such anecdotes and scares.