Cuban Doctors Unsung Heroes Of Haitian Earthquake

Haiti's medical needs were dire before the earthquake devastated what little infrastructure was available. Among those providing free medical were nearly 400 Cuban health workers. The day after the earthquake struck the Cuban doctors reopened two hospitals. Since the Cubans live in the poorest neighborhoods amongst the most disadvantaged Haitians they were actually the first responders.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Food and humanitarian aid are reaching Haiti in increasing quantities today. And U.S. and U.N. troops are starting to bring order to the quake-ravaged nation. But delivering health care to hundreds of thousands of Haitians remains a vexing task.

When the earthquake struck Haiti 12 days ago, the first foreign doctors -indeed in many cases the first doctors - to respond were from Cuba. A team of 380 Cuban health workers was already in Haiti when the quake hit, and shortly thereafter, dozens more arrived. Today, Cuban medical brigades are operating four clinics in Port-au-Prince and as the humanitarian crisis continues, their patient load grows.

NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: The 20 members of the Cuban Miracle Mission, as it's called, had been doing cataract surgeries at a clinic in downtown Port-au-Prince for nearly a year before the afternoon of January 12th, when the earth roared the city disintegrated.

Pharmacist Ildilisa Nunez(ph) says she and the others were on their way to their residence in the capital the moment the earthquake hit. They raced back to the clinic, which was in one of the hardest hit areas.

Dr. ILDILISA NUNEZ (Pharmacist): (Through translator) You can see that everything around here collapsed. And so the Haitians who lived in this neighborhood began coming immediately because they knew that Cuban doctors were here.

BURNETT: Six-hundred-and-five people came to the clinic for treatment in the first 12 hours after the quake. The eye surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses converted their eye clinic into a trauma field hospital - and it still is.

(Soundbite of screaming)

BURNETT: A young woman in a yellow dress is restrained by her husband while a doctor administers antiseptic to a deep, infected wound on her right ankle.

(Soundbite of screaming)

BURNETT: Nunez, the pharmacist, looks at the injured people sitting on a bench waiting their turn to have their wounds cleaned and sutured.

Dr. NUNEZ: (Through translator) All those who are seated there came in this morning on their own. Their wounds are very dirty. They're all infected and they all require powerful antibiotics.

BURNETT: Havana has been sending medical missions to impoverished countries around the world since Cuban doctors first went to Algeria in 1963. Fidel Castro uses this international doctor diplomacy to help the poor and engender good will, though critics say it's more than a humanitarian gesture, it's a sort of Trojan horse of Cuban ideology.

Cuban doctors typically serve two years overseas, which doubles their returning salaries from $25 to $50 a month. Cuban medical brigades have been coming to Haiti for 11 years. The country has substandard hospitals and a severe doctor shortage. Half of Haiti's nearly 10 million people lack access to basic health care; most of the population seeks treatment from traditional healers.

For this reason, doctors from Cuba and any other contributing nation are deeply appreciated. Pharmacist Ildilisa Nunez, a slight grandmother who exudes cheerfulness amid the misery, is happy to extol her country's mission to a U.S. journalist.

Dr. NUNEZ: (Through translator) We in Cuba have a strong culture of help and education. Wherever we're needed we must go to help humanity.

BURNETT: A thin, serious young man named Junior Enrique Lopez, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, is the logistics manager for the Cuban medical brigades in Haiti.

Mr. JUNIOR ENRIQUE LOPEZ (Medical Brigade Logistics Manager, Cuba): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: He says the day after the earthquake, a plane arrived from Cuba with 60 doctors. Now we've receive two flights daily with food, medicine and other supplies. Mexicans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans have also sent aid to the Cuban clinics.

None of the 40 patients undergoing treatment here will stay in the hospital building. They're terrified of another earthquake. Doctors initially treated them inside the hospital, but the patients grabbed their IV bags and hobbled outside. Now everything is done under the sky. The patients camp out on the hospital grounds in yet another wretched tent city, cooking for themselves, using the far lawn for a privy, shooing flies, lying about and contemplating everything they've lost.

Ms. ANGELIE ZWAZAN(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: When the home of Angelie Zwazan collapsed, she says it crushed both her legs and killed three of her family members. She and her surviving daughter, Caroline, lie on a blanket next to the hospital seeking protection from the blue tarp over their heads and the image of the voodoo deity dangling from her neck.

Nearby, a man wheel's his grimacing wife in a wheelbarrow into the medical encampment. As a Cuban nurse checks her blood pressure, the woman takes her place at the end of the line.

John Burnett, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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