OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
Fidel addresses the Henry Reeve Contingent, ready to depart for the United States to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina. Photo: Sergio Alejandro Gómez

“That’s not how to wash your hands, reporter," Fabu tells me, and pushing me aside with his body adds, "When I was in Liberia, we had to do this everyday."

He curls his right hand fingers and rubs his left palm to create some lather.

Then he cleans the top of his hand and scrubs from his wrists up to his elbow, repeating the operation on the other hand, and then rinses both under the faucet.

For an instant, I imagine him in his white safety suit and breathing mask, under the West African sun. He laughs.

I've known him for less than a month, enough time to know that Dr. Luis Enrique Lemus – el Fabuloso, the Ebola assassin – can look death in the face and laugh.

When I arrived in Dominica, two weeks after the winds of Hurricane Maria had wiped the color green from the island, Lemus was already walking through the mountains of Saint Joseph, a township some 20 kilometers from the capital, Roseau.

The Henry Reeve Contingent was mobilized in a matter of hours, after learning of the devastation across the Caribbean. Their Cuban Airlines' ATR 72 landed three days later at Melville Hall Airport, where portions of the runway were still flooded, and the traffic control tower inoperative.

The brigade's ten doctors, including Lemus, were stuck in the airport since there was no way to reach the city by land. They ate crackers, Spam, and mango preserves.

Epidemiologist Raúl Conrado earned himself a nickname over the course of those days: Papa Bear. Six feet tall, with a disaster-proof appetite, two at a time he finished off the individual-sized boxes of preserves that featured a friendly depiction of the animal.

The doctors tell stories about not being able to see their hands at night. The only sound they heard, beside the occasional plane landing, was Conrado enjoying the mango preserves he stored under his bed.

Dr. Zayas is one I cannot imagine getting muddy or bathing in river water. He was raised in Havana's La Lisa neighborhood, one of those Cuban men who are always well-groomed, as if they were on the way to a party. There is no wind that can disturb his hair, no dust that can soil his skin.

The decoration ceremony for Cubans who participated in the struggle against Ebola in West Africa. Photo: Sergio Alejandro Gómez

But orthopedic doctor José Ángel Zayas Power, deputy director of medical assistance at Fructuoso Rodríguez Hospital, works in the medical specialty that most closely resembles carpentry. They say he is among the best of those who can get a bone in place with a single flick of his wrist.

Zayas is really bad at baseball. Not like Dr. Michel Cabrera, head of the mission, and a dangerous left-handed pitcher.

Michel is the man of many questions. How many are going? Where will they stay? How are the conditions? What are the risks? And also the man with the answers.

At 40 years of age, he appears younger, but carries himself like a leader who can take charge in any situation, be it leading a medical mission or choosing players for his baseball team.

Unlike the Cuban doctors who live in houses across the island, our journalists, electricians, and forestry workers stay at Windsor Park, a cricket stadium recently constructed by the Chinese. I was among the six members of the advance team who arrived first, to occupy the dressing rooms and prepare the place to receive the 40 collaborators who would arrive two weeks later.

We tried cricket, but quickly gave up. We ended up playing "taco" baseball with a garbage can, a rag ball, and a wooden stick. Michel got us together in the afternoon, when work permitted, and Fabu joined in when he came over from the capital, to suffer strike-outs in Windsor Park.

It only took Lemus a couple hours to find out how Fabu earned his nicknames. He doesn't just have a car, he has the best '58 Rambler in Cuba. He didn't buy a regular new horn, but one that sounds like a hoarse duck that wakes up the whole town of Güira de Melena.

One day the brigade's driver in Liberia, where he fought the worst viral epidemic of the century, said to him, "You all are the assassins of Ebola." When he returned to Cuba, he had the phrase written on the Rambler's back windshield, and now many know him by that moniker.

Few doctors around the world responded to the World Health Organization's call to contain the outbreak. Fabu didn't think twice.

"I would do it again," he tells me.

"What a difference the Cuban doctors make," I think to myself, recalling the story of Lianet González, a Cuban nurse who lived through the hurricane on Dominica, in the town of Portsmouth on the northern coast.

She lived on the ground floor and her room started to flood. She could feel the force of the wind outside and didn't dare go out. The only thing she did was to unlock the door, thinking, she said, "If I die, at least they'll find me and take me back to Cuba."

Our return to Havana was rough. What should have been a 12-hour trip, with two stopovers, became a three day odyssey, with a plane change due to technical problems.

The only upside was the time I had to review the stories and get to know members of the brigade a bit better.

I try to put in order my previous recollections of the Henry Reeve. September of 2005 comes to mind. I recall the white lab coats and olive green backpacks of those gathered for the first time in Havana's International Conference Center.

I had decided to study journalism, but I was far away from a newsroom the day Fidel spoke of creating a medical contingent specialized in disaster situations, to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States.

It was no surprise Washington rejected the offer. If George W. Bush had accepted, perhaps fewer of the 1,800 who died in the storm's wake would have perished.

The brigade's trial by fire took place on the other side of the planet, in the snowy peaks of Pakistan, where a devastating earthquake had moved mountains. Since then, the Henry Reeve has completed missions in some 20 countries and saved an estimated 80,000 lives.

I knew all of this before, but something changed over the month in Dominica. I am sure that the next time I see the faces of brigade members, they will be distinct and the context will be a new one. But I will look for Fabu, with his clean hands; for Conrado and his voracious appetite; for Zayas; and Michel, the left hander, off whom I hit a homerun in Dominica's National Stadium.