Bush administration rebuffs 1,500 volunteer doctors

On Aug. 30, as news of the public health disaster in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina emerged, the socialist country of Cuba, which has extensive experience dealing with hurricane disasters, offered to send medical assistance. The Bush administration never responded to the offer.

Below are excerpts from remarks by Cuban President Fidel Castro on Sept. 4 to the hundreds of medical doctors assembled at the Havana Convention Center awaiting deployment.

Fellow Cubans:

Hardly 48 hours ago I once again explicitly offered the United States to send a medical force with the necessary means to offer emergency assistance to the tens of thousands of Americans trapped in the flooded areas and the ruins Katrina left behind.

It was clear to us that those who faced the greatest danger were these huge numbers of poor, desperate people, many elderly citizens with health situations, pregnant women, mothers and children among them, all in urgent need of medical care.

In such a situation, regardless of how rich a country may be, the number of scientists it has or how great its technical breakthroughs have been, what it needs are young, well-trained and experienced professionals, who have done medical work in similar circumstances, and who, with a minimum of resources, can be immediately transported to specific facilities or sites where the lives of human beings are in danger.

Cuba, a short distance away from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, was in a position to offer assistance to the American people. Cuba would be completely powerless to help the crew of a spaceship or a nuclear submarine in distress, but it could offer crucial assistance to the victims of hurricane Katrina, facing imminent death.

Castro states that Cuba first extended its offer of assistance on Tuesday, Aug. 30, at 12:45 pm, when the winds and downpours had barely ceased. He continues:

Knowing that I could rely on men and women like you, I reiterated our offer three days later, promising that in less than 12 hours the first 100 doctors, carrying the necessary medical resources in their backpacks, could be in Houston; that an additional 500 could be there 10 hours later and that, within the next 36 hours, 500 more, for a total of 1,100, could join them to save at least one of the many lives at risk.

Castro states that in response to the increasingly alarming news, not 1,100 but 1,586 Cuban doctors were mobilized. Their average age is 32 and the group of health care professionals includes 857 women and 729 men. He goes on:

Our doctors’ backpacks contain precisely those resources needed to address in-the-field problems relating to dehydration: high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and infections in all parts of the body — lungs, bones, skin, ears, urinary tract, reproductive system — as they arise. They also carry medicine to suppress vomiting; painkillers and drugs to lower fever; medication for the immediate treatment of heart conditions, for allergies of any kind; for treating bronchial asthma and similar complications, about 40 products of proven efficiency in emergencies such as this one.

These professionals carry two backpacks containing these products and a small briefcase with diagnostic kits. Each backpack weighs 12 kilograms (25 pounds). These doctors have much clinical experience. They are used to offering their services in places where there isn’t even one X-ray machine, ultrasound equipment or instruments for analyzing fecal samples, blood, etc.

Castro explains how Cuba is able to offer this level of assistance. Today, Cuba has the highest number of doctors per capita in the world, and no other country cooperates with other nations in the field of health care as extensively as it does, he says.

It has over 130,000 university-educated health care professionals; of these, 25,845 today serve in international missions in 66 countries, including 17,651 doctors, 3,069 dentists and 3,117 health care technicians who work in optic services and other areas. Castro concludes:

Today, more than 12,000 young people from around the world, chiefly from Latin America and the Caribbean, are studying medicine in Cuba completely free of charge, and their numbers will continue to grow rapidly. Scores of young people from the United States study in the Latin American School of Medicine, whose doors have been opened, since the institution’s inception, to students from that country.

How many lives could have been saved had the Bush administration not turned its back on this dramatic offer for on-the-spot medical assistance?