Doctors fighting ebola

(Granma International) – The Cuban medical brigade is a united team. Recently, the tension has been reduced, and suitcases packed for their return home. The tranquil city of Monrovia, is not the same one they experienced during the first days of their stay. The hustle and bustle of the market along the main roads signals, paradoxically, calm.

I talk to doctors and nurses, and tell them what they already know: In Cuba we are following you and waiting for your return. But they resist being called heroes, perhaps because they genuinely are. The day Cuba announced its decision to join the fight against Ebola, which was in reality the decision of their people, of these men, to travel to Africa’s danger zones, where the Ebola epidemic was concentrated, we Cubans became a single family. We regard them as our own, like fathers, brother or sons, and were always concerned for their health, for the patients they saved, and of those they lost. I have spoken to almost all of them, and they are all so different, but alike in one aspect. These men are Cubans of the Revolution. I want to share with you the testimony of 63 year old Dr. Leonardo Fernández, intensive therapy and internal medicine specialist, MSc graduate in emergency medicine and intensive care, and assistant professor at the Medical Sciences University in Guantánamo, In his own words…“My family is used to it, as I have already completed various missions, but we also share the same values. It’s a small and totally revolutionary family: my wife, two children, an aunt and two uncles. My wife is retired, my daughter is a clinical laboratory graduate, and has completed a mission in Venezuela; my son is an ambulance driver. A small, but very united family.

WITH FEAR, BUT ALSO COURAGE

“I believe in the youth. Why not! The youth is change, revolution. I tell my youngest compañeros: I can’t think like you, I grew up in a different time, in a different era, with other needs, now there are other perspectives, more facilities. The youth is change. We have to form values, principles. The majority of the brigade members are young people. We are only four or five senior members. They have been very brave, above all the nurses, and have worked with great intensity, with fear, we all felt a great sense of fear, before leaving, and here… and we still feel it, because even up until the last day, that little creature can infect us. With fear, but also with courage. I believe the training we received in Cuba was excellent, decisive, I would say, since we were told from the very beginning the reality of the situation. They told us what we would be facing and the risks we would run, we were given all this information in Cuba. I greatly appreciate the training offered by the WHO, but that which we received in Cuba, in the Medical Collaboration Central Unit and the Pedro Kourí Institute of  Tropical Medicine was exceptional.

So, we left knowing what was to come, knowing the risks, physiologically and technically prepared for the task ahead. This was fundamental. And later, the General’s (Raúl Castro) farewell filled everyone with strength.”

TRAGEDY AND SOLIDARITY

Dr. Leonardo Fernández. Photo: Enrique Ubieta Gómez

“When we arrived, we found a country, a city, deserted. There were hardly any cars or people on the streets, there was no one. Even in the hotel where we ate lunch and dinner, there were only Cubans and three UN representatives. And now, I tell you, what a difference! … So, one leaves with this little bit of pride: knowing that I did something so that this city is once again full of people. People greet us in the street, when we go out to eat or shopping, they treat us with great affection. The cars in the road stop to allow the Cubans to cross.

“We witnessed the birth of this unit. We were frightened the first week, but as time went by, we had to put a stop to these fears, because they wanted us to do more than had been requested of us. We saw entire families die, children left alone, the mother, father and three little brothers all died, terrible…But we also saw others who survived Ebola, who after recovering, gathered together and adopted orphaned children. There is no better reward for us than to see the solidarity of Liberians with each other. We came as volunteers, and at no time in Cuba did they talk to us about rewards. At my hospital they arrived and asked who was willing to go, and told us that we might not return, and I raised my hand. No one told us: We are going to pay you so much, or we are going to give you such and such a thing. This is what the majority of people believe.”

FEELING LIKE A HERO?

“Look, the media impact of this mission, the information which has been disseminated via Facebook, via the internet, has made some believe that we have done something extraordinary, which makes us heroes. I believe that we have completed a task, with revolutionary and medical ethics. How is it different from those working in the Brazilian jungle? How is it different from those in the Venezuelan jungle, working alone in indigenous communities for months? How is it different from those serving in African villages? I have been lucky enough to have experienced another part of Africa. I lived, for example, in the capital of Mozambique, working in a provincial intensive therapy center, but I had colleagues who were living on the border, in the jungle, in temperatures reaching 48 degrees… What’s the difference? The difference is that this was a high-profile international mission, which received the importance it deserved. It’s true that you have to have courage to say I’m going, and I am going to fight it, that’s undeniable, but it was just another task.

“We don’t need rewards, the acknowledgement of our willingness to be here is enough, and that our people speak of us is the greatest recognition. If something material comes at some point, it is welcome, as we still have needs, but I don’t believe I deserve it, that they are obliged to give me something. The Five were in prison for 16 years and at no time did they think of this sort of thing.

“The people need individuals who lead by example. I have had the good fortune, the personal privilege of having spoken with Vilma, with Raúl himself, perhaps he doesn’t even remember, as I was a doctor on a convoy with them. I have spoken with Fidel three or four times, like I am speaking to you now. They are true heroes, and I don’t see them speaking of their heroism, their bravery. In order to gain respect you don’t have to feel or believe yourself to be a hero. What I would like people to recognize is that I am a true revolutionary, firm in my principles. That is enough. And there are many such people in Cuba, very many. Those who everyday, get up at 12:00 am to make the bread that I am going to eat in the morning, those who cut sugarcane for decades, so that we would have food, they are without a doubt, heroes.

I RAISED MY HAND AND LATER ASKED WHY…                         

“I served on a mission in Nicaragua in 1979, one month after the triumph of their Revolution. They triumphed on July 19, and on August 17 the first Cuban brigade arrived. I stayed there until 1981, in Puerto Cabezas, on the Atlantic coast. Imagine, I was the doctor assigned by Daniel Ortega to Fagoth, the leader of the counterrevolution on the Atlantic coast. I was very emotional during the Alba meeting, as Daniel gave me a hug at the end. Nicaragua was where I really became a revolutionary. When I was 17 years old, you couldn’t listen to a Beatles song, or go to a bar, or be in the streets late at night. And despite the fact that my family had been affiliated with the July 26 Movement, that my father and sister had been in the Sierra, I was a rebel, and I didn’t understand. I liked rock music and had longhair. But I had been educated in the principles of the Revolution and one day they told me: there is this situation, I raised my hand and began. I learned to value Cuba. Being outside of Cuba, I learned to value the Revolution. Afterwards, I never signed up for collaborative missions, it seemed absurd to me, until Fidel called upon doctors to go to the United States, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We were selected among the first 150. Later the brigade grew to 1,500. In the end we didn’t go to the United States, for various reasons, but Fidel spoke at the Ciudad Deportiva, a moment I still remember. But then the earthquake in Pakistan occurred and the floods in Mexico and Guatemala. The brigade was divided up. I went to Pakistan, with the first group, the majority military doctors and some civilians with specific experience in these types of events. At that time, Bruno Rodríguez, inquired as to my willingness to go directly to East Timor. I was one of those who said “Here we are,” I raised my hand thinking I wouldn’t be chosen as I was getting ready to return to Cuba, and I was selected. I was in East Timor for two years. Later came the earthquake in Haiti and they asked for volunteers. On that occasion I raised my hand and later wondered why.
Well, this was on the 10th and on the 11th or 12th we were in Haiti, and I led the brigade’s intensive therapy unit. On my return, as a reward, they told me that I needed to participate in a “collaboration” effort, as all the missions I had served on had been for wars, or disasters and so I spent three years in Mozambique.

“A little later this epidemic took hold, I had heard of Ebola, I know Africa, I had treated hemorrhagic fevers in Mozambique, and I raised my hand, and here I am. Nothing special, right? This is life. While I have strength and they accept me, I will go where I am needed.”

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