When altruism is more than just a word

Dr. Norbery Jorge Rodríguez de La Paz (left) performing complex surgery on a Mexican patient. Photos: Courtesy of the interviewee

Nov 10 (Granma) Cuban neurosurgeon Norbery Jorge Rodríguez de La Paz is currently providing medical care to the population of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, severely affected by an earthquake in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region September 7, leaving more than 300 dead. The Cuban doctor is working in the field hospital located in the Che-Nita sports center, as part of a brigade of the Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specializing in Disasters and Serious Epidemics, with experience working in twenty countries.

The brigade is composed of 40 doctors, nurses, technicians and service personnel, including cooks and maintenance workers for the hospital’s power plant, all living in tents. The medical personnel provide consultations from eight in the morning until there are no more patients waiting to be seen. They also receive emergency cases 24 hours a day.

Dr. Rodríguez previously traveled to help earthquake victims in Nepal, in May 2015. Working there for three months, he noted that the task was particularly difficult given the language barrier. “There we operated both on those wounded due to the disaster, and others who had not been treated due to a lack of professionals dedicated to this specialty in the country. Dr. Orestes López and I operated on more than 30 patients with spinal and cranial disorders,” he explained in an exclusive interview with Granma International.

Rodríguez, who works at the Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Havana, noted: “In the case of Mexico, we have already diagnosed five pituitary tumors, malignant lesions of the head, and other traumatic lesions of the spine. We have coordinated with nearby hospitals to operate on these patients and treat their conditions.”

The doctor described the local people as being of very scarce means, and noted that they constantly express their gratitude for the Cuban medical aid. He recalled the surgery conducted on a soldier who had been rescuing earthquake victims, who arrived with a depressed skull fracture. The presence of the medical brigade prevented the patient from having to travel for 13 hours to the Mexican capital, which would have presented a high risk to his life due to infection of the central nervous system. The operation was performed with the few tools they had available and limited technical resources.

Likewise, they operated on a woman with a deforming cystic tumor. Doctors believe that it grew gradually inside the patient’s head for some 30 years, without receiving any specialized professional follow-up care. The patient is currently very well and her relatives have expressed their gratitude for such a feat.

Despite the fact that aftershocks continue to occur in the area, the most difficult part of these internationalist missions for Dr. Rodríguez is being separated from his family, especially his sons Diego and David, aged 14 and three, respectively. In a visit to his home in Havana, his wife Diana Fernández Calderón noted that her husband has a difficult profession; he leaves the house very early and returns late at night. Meanwhile, Diana is assistant director of the Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba company, meaning she too has frequent international commitments. As such, the children’s maternal grandparents have become surrogate parents: “I have to really thank my parents who help me all the time,” she stressed.

She added, “The departure of a member of the family is very difficult, because those who remain in Cuba worry about the absent person. We are a close-knit family, the two children have different mothers but they love each other with devotion. The youngest loves playing with his older brother and misses his dad very much. Father and baby make a game of daily tasks such as bathing, eating, sleeping and walking.”

For Diana, living with a neurosurgeon is a great sacrifice but at the same time a source of pride, as he cures illnesses and saves lives. “It is very comforting to see people’s affection toward him. Patients and their relatives always think of him on Doctor’s Day or on Father’s Day. They call him and congratulate him on important dates,” she noted.Diego explained that he intends to study medicine and wants to become a neurosurgeon just like his father. He is aware of the rigor of the career and aims to obtain high academic results to fulfill his dream. He noted: “My dad is my idol and my source of inspiration to study; I want to imitate him in his profession. I have seen how people profess a lot of affection for the work he does. I would also like to be in a place where I could help others and feel that I have done important work.”

“My dad’s departure to Mexico,” Diego explained, “occurred at the end of September, he didn’t have time for a farewell and we only speak by phone. He tells me that he feels a great sadness to see the devastation caused by the earthquake and to learn of the number of deaths that have occurred. They live in tents put up in the grounds of a sports center, and feel the earth shake as a result of the aftershocks. They have also suffered strong winds that almost destroyed their tents. Very early in the morning there are patients to attend to and he has had to perform several complex surgeries without optimal conditions.” Such testimonies remind one of the words of the historic leader of the Revolution Fidel Castro when the Henry Reeve Contingent was founded on September 19, 2005: “Our concepts about the human condition of other peoples and the duty of brotherhood and solidarity have never been nor will be betrayed. Tens of thousands of Cuban doctors and health professionals scattered around the world are irrefutable proof of what I say. For them there will never be language barriers, sacrifice, dangers or obstacles.”

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