CARACAS.— Together Marta, Florinda and Dionel make for a kind of geography class, but most of all a lesson in love. Speaking and listening to them describe their experiences as international healthcare collaborators, the importance of the work being undertaken around the world by thousands of Cubans, just like them, becomes clear; and that their mission in Venezuela, a country wrought with tension but so dearly loved, is just another stop on the road of internationalist cooperation.
Sitting in a room at the El Terminal-Los Lagos Central Diagnostic Unit (CDI), in the municipality of Guaicaipuro, Miranda state, the three collaborators talk about this “trail” of love they have traveled bringing healthcare to communities across the world.
HAITI, FIDEL & RAUL
Intensive care nurse Marta Ruiz Pérez, has been working at the Antonio Luaces Iraola provincial hospital for 40 years, but has also taken time off from her beloved work place in Ciego de Avila to attend to the health needs of other peoples in different countries. “I was in Haiti in 2008, the same year it was hit by three hurricanes. I had been working there for two years but they asked me to stay on so I remained for a few more months,” she states.
Following a cholera outbreak in the country in 2011, the nurse returned to Haiti as member of the Henry Reeve contingent. “I was familiar with the language, and a couple of areas in the country…I went back for a few months. The outbreak took many lives. We worked in a field hospital and saved many patients. Just as I was finishing my mission, other colleagues arrived. Other always come,” she explains.
Although Marta Ruiz Pérez has been working as an intensive care nurse at the El Terminal-Los Lagos CDI in Venezuela since August 2016, she will continue to serve on the Henry Reeve brigade, which represents “a great honor, for me, my hospital and my family. I am ready and willing to help any country suffering a disaster,” she notes.
According to the healthcare professional, while in Haiti she visited remote areas, walked many miles and overcame adversity in the midst of hurricanes, landslides and earthquakes. “This helped me prepare for everything I would face in Venezuela,” she states.
With a daughter and grandchild anxiously awaiting her return in Ciego de Ávila, Marta explains why she chooses to participate on international missions: “internationalism is in our (Cubans) blood. Those of us who work in the health sector know that we must take our experiences anywhere a life can be saved.”
However, Marta didn’t leave Haiti empty handed: “I gained many lovely things from the experience, met lots of good people, receive many gestures of gratitude…It was beautiful to help such poor but loving people,” she states, overcome with emotion.
The intensive care nurse is set to return to Cuba in September, but that’s the thing with works of love, you never know what’s going to happen. Nonetheless, Marta is ready and willing to continue working in Venezuela if need be. “It’s different, but they are also grateful for us here.”
Recalling her earliest missions, the nurse is reminded of many “beautiful stories,” like that of a day “during the hurricane, when a young girl arrived and we delivered her baby. The storm was raging outside, while inside two babies were born: Fidel and Raúl.”
Dionel Portela Puentes and I listen intently as Marta recalls her solidarity work. Dionel’s experience on international missions began in 1983 when, as a 20 year old intensive care nurse also from Ciego de Ávila, he was stationed in Angola where he experienced the bitter hues of war.
“I worked for three months in Cabinda, an oil rich province but with no medical services, so we soldiers took on the responsibility of providing medical care to the poor in the area. I was a nursing graduate and worked in the local and military hospital.”
The young nurse was astonished by the social reality of the country. “There was only one doctor; I watched children die of malnutrition, diarrhea or fever, without receiving any care, and saw how the equipment was neglected. The people had nothing until we collaborators arrive, some military, some civil.”
Dionel remembers what the war was like: “A country destroyed. Many people were mutilated by the mines laid by the so called National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The main victims were children and young people. You’d see a beautiful hospital with modern equipment but no one staffing it; we got it working for the people.”
After working for many years in his province, six months ago Dionel began serving on a health mission in Venezuela. “It’s been going well here, I work perfectly with the people. These are the principles of Cuba and Fidel. This is how I was educated, I’m not going to change my way of thinking,” he states.
However, the healthcare professional is also very familiar with the unconventional or fourth-generation warfare being waged in Venezuela: “It’s a different kind of war, in the midst of which we try to do our very best. The rich people have everything, but it always the general population that suffers the consequences. There is a lack of medicines and good treatment. Good treatment is what we provide every day, excellent treatment so that the people feel happy.”
According to this veteran of peace, although the war in Angola and that being waged in Venezuela are very different, the will of Cuban international collaborators remains the same: “There we protected the physical integrity of a country, here we are providing a people greater access to healthcare.” In each case Dionel has represented Cuba: “In Angola I served with the military in our olive green uniforms, and now, in Venezuela, with white coats. They’re very similar, just with different weapons.”
For Florinda West Domínguez her main motivation in life is to provide healthcare to the people, a mission which has taken the Hygiene and Epidemiology graduate and Medical Entomology expert to various countries around the world.
“As an epidemiologist, my job in Venezuela is to care for the health of the Cuban collaborators in the Altos Mirandinos region, a big responsibility, because I must ensure that they take care of themselves, and don’t get sick in a country with endemic transmissible diseases,” she explains.
“Previously, in 2003, I helped combat dengue in Honduras with the Henry Reeve contingent. The Pan American Health Organization put out a call for a group of entomologists and 15 Cubans went to do a study and combat the epidemic. We were supposed to be there for three months, but the success of our work meant that the mission was extended to six months, then a year,” she notes.
Florinda worked in Santa Rosa de Copán, with a team of Cuban doctors already stationed there.
Although they faced four dengue outbreaks, the collaborators managed to reduce infestation rates to safe levels and interrupt transmission.
In Honduras, the Cuban specialist experienced the ugly side of a lack of healthcare, having to treat Chagas disease and leishmaniasis, which not only moved her on a personal level but also strengthened her processional development. “We Cubans are very polite, we began talking to Hondurans and expanding our knowledge.”
What’s it like to serve on a contingent as prestigious and committed as the Henry Reeve?
It’s a lot of pressure. Even among the best there are those who are better, but we all go work with our hearts, because being a member of the Henry Reeve is a great commitment, you don’t have dates or timetables, sometimes the sacrifice is more than the body can handle, but even then we do it just the same as always, with much love.
I suppose one would imagine that every member of the Henry Reeve contingent has a backpack ready at home. Do you?
Laughing Florinda notes,“Yes I have one, I’m always ready.”