Cuban Doctors: The Soldiers Who Defeated Ebola

Medical doctors being washed with chlorine after treating patients.

Medical doctors being washed with chlorine after treating patients.

HAVANA TIMES — As reports of three new Ebola cases arrive from Liberia, the medical doctor who headed Cuba’s largest campaign against the virus in Africa, Jorge Delgado, offered Publico an exclusive interview. Delgado is a veteran internationalist: “I have worked in Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau.”

“The UN requested aid from Cuba and other countries (some large and powerful). These may have supplied material and financial resources. I headed a team of 165 medical doctors in Sierra Leone. The average age of the doctors was 47, and many of them had previous [international] experience, so we began our work fully aware of the risks.

“Some relatives would tell us we were crazy for going there. It wasn’t just my family or the families of the 256 members of the medical team who were scared, the whole of Cuba was scared. Our press had divulged the terrible images of what was going on there and the whole of Cuba was on edge throughout the time we were working there.

“We knew that, in case of death, our remains could not be brought back to Cuba for five years. We knew that, if we fell in ‘combat’, we would be left there – that we were at war. We all signed that agreement before leaving and it was absolutely voluntary. Those who didn’t want to go on this mission had every right to turn it down and continue where they were and even opt for a different mission abroad. We had thousands of volunteers for the 256 spots on the team.

“It was an altruistic gesture: we would get a stipend, but there was no actual salary. During the meeting with the UN, the health minister said that this would be a solidarity effort and that Cuba would receive only a stipend to cover lodging and food.”

“We lost two doctors in the war against the virus. Jorge Juan Guerra, an economist, contracted cerebral malaria that killed him in 3 days, and Reinaldo Villafranca, a nurse, also contracted a deadly case of malaria. It was very sad and painful. The other case was that of Felix Baez, who contracted Ebola. It was hard to watch him become ill and see his condition worsen. We tested him for malaria and got a negative. At the British hospital, they tested him for Ebola and it came back positive. They conducted three tests on him, there was no doubt he had Ebola.

“The day Felix contracted the virus, he had been making superhuman efforts. He stayed to look after his patients longer, he spent 2 hours trying to help them and left rather weary. When you put on all of the protective gear, the body suit, you should work for an hour at most, during which time you lose about a liter of body fluids. The temperature was between 32 and 34 degrees. We would work for an hour and then rest a while.

“In the hot zones, we always had 2 or 3 doctors working together, so that, if anyone began to feel sick, the others could get him or her out. When we put on our suits, we had to ensure there were no openings where the virus could seep through. The hardest part was taking the suit off after one had touched the patients, after handling, bathing, feeding and looking after them, cleaning their feces and blood. You had to be meticulous when taking off the suit. First, you were bathed in chlorine and then you began to take everything off very slowly. We wore three sets of gloves, we were heavily protected. One of us would monitor the other and remind him of every step, even after having gone through these 50 times.”

Rubbing Elbows With the Enemy

“In Sierra Leone, we had an Ebola treatment center, where we worked next to the US non-profit organization Partners in Health. We worked closely as professionals and doctors, exchanging scientific reports every morning after our shifts. We would send each other emails and we made friends, as the photos show. We planted a tree of life, a small mango tree right outside the center. We would tie a colored ribbon to it every time we saved a patient.

“This happened despite the fact the United States offers an express visa program to Cuban medical doctors who wish to leave their teams and emigrate to the United States, where the vast majority aren’t allowed to practice medicine. They do it only to try and weaken us, but every medical doctor who joined the Ebola campaign returned to Cuba.

“At any rate, Cuban doctors can legally and officially immigrate to the United States. This is their right, even though it has a negative impact on Cuba, when you lose a good surgeon, for instance. You also have to consider those doctors who retire or pass away. Cuba trains many doctors it later loses. Last July, more than 8,000 students completed medical school, and 10,000 are currently enrolled this year.”

After several months of work in Africa, Cuba’s medical brigade managed to save 381 people who had contracted the Ebola virus, while thousands died under their humane care. Working with European and US NGOs, Cuban professionals managed to halt the spread of the epidemic. This army of “white coats” began its international efforts in Algeria in 1963 and, today, its “troops” save lives in more than 60 countries around the world.

Even US Secretary of State John Kerry praised the work of Cuban doctors in Africa. Despite this, that country’s policy has not changed: the program aimed at encouraging Cuban physicians to leave their brigades and emigrate to the United States is still in effect. Ironically, Cuba’s medical brigade bears the name of a young American, Henry Reeve, who took part in Cuba’s war of independence.

Fernando Ravsberg, Havana Times
November 26, 2015

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