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Healing Body and Heart, Cuban Style

Cuban doctors and artists -- on the ground in Haiti even before the earthquake -- are helping survivors heal.

The governments of Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti signed a trilateral accord on March 27 to rebuild the public health system in Haiti. Brazil committed $80 million toward the effort and pledged to create a national epidemiologic surveillance network. The Cuban contribution includes more than 1,600 doctors, several hundred of whom were already in Haiti when the earthquake hit and acted as first responders. Most of the medical delegation, however, came shortly after the earthquake, agreeing to provide top-quality health care for two years.

Since 1999, a several-hundred-strong team of Cuban-trained and sponsored doctors (with individual members rotating in and out) have staffed city hospitals and rural clinics throughout Haiti. Without charge to patient or government, they have focused their attention primarily in remote areas, offering general medical care to many who have never before received it and who might otherwise have died. The doctors have served as first responders after hurricanes.

Emergency Responders

The team that arrived after the January 12 earthquake is part of the Henry Reeve Cuban Medical Brigade, a post-disaster operation formed to offer assistance to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. government refused their help, but the team has since gone to Pakistan after a major earthquake, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, and a number of other places that have suffered major catastrophes. In February, part of the brigade was dispatched to Chile after an earthquake hit there.

The doctors are committed to health care that is free and accessible to everyone, and that is rooted in dignity and respect. One member, Dr. Wilsos Canton, said that they "don’t consider health care a business, but a right. "

The doctors come from 25 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and the Americas, including Haiti. They were all trained at the Cuban-run Latin American Medical School (ELAM), which has a branch in Venezuela. Travel to Haiti and all related expenses are covered by the Cuban government. Though doctors receive a small stipend for daily expenses, they are otherwise volunteers. Regardless of country of origin, they are known throughout Haiti as the "Cuban doctors."

ELAM has also trained, at no charge, 556 Haitian doctors in past years. As a condition of their education, new doctors must return to work in Haiti.

The young physicians of the Henry Reeve Brigade are working in three hospital sites around the capital, four community health posts, and hospitals in other towns and rural areas. In Carrefour and Croix-des-Bouquets, they have created field hospitals, where they provide 24-hour services with specialty care in pediatrics, surgery, intensive care, internal medicine, and gynecology. Teams of doctors also travel into displaced people’s camps with backpacks full of supplies to treat those who cannot or do not come to them. Moreover, five teams, working six days a week, have vaccinated more than 70,000 people against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, mumps, and measles.

At nine o'clock on a recent morning, after a bus ride through Port-Au-Prince’s traffic-clogged streets, five of the "Cuban doctors" hiked up the rocky street with large backpacks full of supplies and medicines. Arriving at their post in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood, they opened the sides of the tent that is permanently stationed there and hung a Cuban flag from it. They unpacked the medicines and arranged a couple of small wooden tables and some metal folding chairs, creating three care stations and a pharmacy.

Dr. David Alderete, an Argentine, sweated in the morning heat. His first patient was a 16-day-old baby, the daughter of a 19-year-old woman. After four days of diarrhea, the baby was malnourished and appeared lifeless. When Alderete lightly pinched the baby’s arm, her skin held the shape of his pinch. He determined she needed to go to the hospital for rehydration, explained to the mother where to go and who to talk with, and handed her a note for his Cuban colleagues on call at the hospital. She listened, agreed, and wrapped the baby back up in her little blankets. A few steps outside the tent, tears began flowing down the woman’s face.

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