My daughter had been born on Mars. Or at least, that’s how it appeared when I looked through the window of my hospital bedroom. Admittedly I was somewhat spaced out after an unplanned general anaesthetic and some tremendously welcome pain killers, but still, my vista of sand and rocks as far as the eye could see, stained rusty orange by a desert sunset, did have an otherworldly quality to it.
My hospital bed, whilst not actually on another planet, was located in Zekreet, about an hour’s drive from Doha, near the coastal town of Dukhan. Barely more than a tiny settlement, the area is distinguished by a plethora of unusual limestone ‘mushrooms’ and sculptor Richard Serra’s new installation of his work “East-West/West-East,” four towering steel monoliths located in the wilderness. Zekreet might not actually be extra-terrestrial, but let’s put it this way – it’s not Epsom. Or even Doha.
Most Doha residents rarely venture out this far, except for occasional jaunts to admire the sunset from Dukhan’s pleasant beaches. The drive, along what must surely be one of the world’s least-used motorways, is by and large a study in beige. Beige sand, beige rocks, beige buildings – what buildings there are, that is. The most exciting part of the journey is the section that passes through Shahaniya, home to the country’s enormous camel race track. (If you can’t spot a camel from your car, you’re not looking hard enough.)
Now, however, an increasingly large proportion of the country’s pregnant women are choosing to make the lengthy journey on a regular basis, spurred on by the reputation of Dukhan’s local hospital for excellent care.
The Cuban Hospital of Dukhan is far from your average local general hospital. As its name suggests, it’s staffed by hundreds of Cuban doctors and nurses, transplanted more than 7000 miles and deposited in the Qatari desert. Opened in 2011, it’s funded and run by Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), Qatar’s public healthcare system.
The Cubans employed at the hospital, around 400 in all, are just a small proportion of the tens of thousands of Cuban medical practitioners who are currently employed overseas on fixed term contracts, through the country’s policy of ‘medical internationalism,’ which often sees its doctors being sent to war zones to carry out humanitarian work.
Qatar clearly doesn’t fall into this category, but Cuba’s Ambassador to Qatar recently said that the deal they’d struck was an example of the “excellent” relations between the two countries.
It certainly seems to be working well for both sides – Cuba benefits financially, and in return, Qatar has staffed an entire hospital from a guaranteed pool of well qualified staff who live in purpose built accommodation on site.
My plan to deliver at The Cuban was met with many a raised eyebrow and a discrete cough, particularly from friends and family who weren’t familiar with Qatar’s healthcare system. I’m not surprised. The place sounds fantastical to me too, and I’ve actually been treated there.
My choice, however, was a logical one. I was attracted by Cuba’s reputation for excellent medical training, the attractively designed, well-equipped modern hospital (with single en suite rooms as standard), and the fact that it came under the umbrella of Qatar’s public healthcare system, meaning that I received heavily subsidised care.
This was a tremendous bonus, as I’m one of a significant number of expat women whose employer-provided health insurance doesn’t provide maternity cover.
The cost of private healthcare in Qatar is increasing rapidly. When I gave birth to our son in Qatar in 2010, a private birth cost us around £2500, plus significant sums for all antenatal check-ups and tests. This has now more than doubled. So, the cost of my c-section at The Cuban – a mind-bogglingly brilliant 400 Qatari riyals (around £70) was a no-brainer.
Four years ago, none of Qatar’s public hospitals allowed husbands beyond the maternity hospital waiting room. So, despite the cost, we decided to deliver our son at a private hospital so that my husband could be present at all appointments, as well as at the actual birth.
This time around, however, we were attracted by The Cuban’s reputation for having a “more western” approach to maternity care than Qatar’s other public hospitals, allowing husbands to be much more involved, including welcoming them at all appointments and scans. My husband was not present, however, at my c-section – birthing partners are strictly not allowed in the operating theatre here, something that upsets many.
So, not quite the midwife-led units, multiple birthing partners and birthing pools of home (attitudes towards childbirth in Qatar do, on occasion, have a worryingly 1970s-UK, over-medicalised whiff to them.) It’s to be hoped, however, that Qatar’s forthcoming Sidra hospital for women and children will do much to change the childbirth experience here. For now, however, residents are seeking out pockets of medical care where they feel most comfortable, and for me, The Cuban was it.
The other huge plus was the hospital’s well organised appointment system, which meant we hardly ever had to wait. Even in Doha’s private hospitals, it’s not unusual to have to wait up to two hours to see an obstetrician at each antenatal appointment, but at The Cuban, I never waited more than 10 minutes.
I’d far rather drive an hour each way to my appointment, than wait in a characterless room decorated with plastic flowers, thumbing through years-old copies of Hello, for the same period of time – whilst paying through the nose for the privilege, of course.
Having given birth under both the private and state systems in Qatar, I must say I rate the latter more highly. My first experience – which I also wrote about for Telegraph Expat – was characterised by a lack of support from nursing staff. In particular, the absence of information about, or practical help for, breastfeeding was woeful. Based on this experience, it comes as no surprise that Qatar has a very low breastfeeding rate.
By contrast, the Cuban doctors and nurses were very encouraging, with the paediatric nurses in particular providing a shoulder to cry on and proper practical help in the wee hours of the morning when I was ready to throw in the towel.I also enjoyed getting to know more about their daily lives in Cuba, and finding out about their families, who they’d all had to leave behind – a decision made by Cuba, and not by Qatar, they said.
One nurse in particular told me about her baby son, who was three. She’d left Cuba when he was a year old, and she could tell me the exact number of days she had left until the end of her contract, when would be reunited with him again. She had less than a month to go until her flight out, so six weeks on, I imagine her now, souvenirs unpacked, suitcase stowed and forgotten, relishing her return to motherhood.
I’m so grateful to her and all of her colleagues for making my second experience of childbirth in Qatar a positive one. I loved the Cuban music I could hear being played at the nurse’s station in the evening; the bursts of “que Linda” (how beautiful) whenever they saw my daughter (I was convinced for a day that they thought she was called Linda); and even the odd Cuban coconut pudding I had for lunch.
Qatar and Cuba – an unusual partnership, I grant you – but at this hospital, it definitely works. I’m not planning on any more children (you can quote me on that) but I must say, if I did end up doing it all again in Qatar, I’d head back to the eerie, Martian landscape of Zekreet, and its Cuban inhabitants, every time.