Cuban medics prepare to leave Pakistan

Members of Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade are returning from medical work in Pakistan where they arrived six months ago, six days after the Oct. 8 earthquake. Formed last year, the brigade provides disaster relief anywhere in the world. Henry Reeve was a U.S. volunteer killed in Cuba’s first war for independence.

The brigade will transfer responsibility for 32 fully equipped field hospitals to 450 Pakistani army doctors whom the Cubans are training to operate the equipment.

Cuba was initially limited to sending 50 doctors, until a telephone call from Cuban President Fidel Castro to Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, opened the doors. Six months later, the two countries are about to establish diplomatic relations, Cuba has invited Musharraf to attend the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement set for September in Havana, and 1,000 young Pakistanis are eligible to study medicine free in Cuba.

What happened in between?

Numbers tell some of the story: 75,000 Pakistanis dead, over 120,000 wounded, and 3.3 million homeless. Volunteering in Pakistan were 2,465 Cuban health workers, 1,430 of them experienced physicians who combined have worked in 40 countries.

They cared for over 1 million people (nearly half of them women), performed 12,400 operations, hospitalized 12,000 patients, saw 440,000 people in tents or in the rubble, and provided 432,118 physiotherapy treatments for 76,183 persons.

They worked in 44 locations, operating 32 of the 44 field hospitals in Pakistan, dispensing 234.5 tons of medicines and supplies, and utilizing 275.5 tons of durable equipment, which was left behind. Some 900 Pakistani medical students and army doctors worked beside them.

What the Cubans did in Pakistan is also revealed in anecdotes and testimonials. A couple of Cuban doctors, for example, won friends when the jeep carrying them stopped, unable to negotiate a steep mountain road. The women doctors went the rest of the way on foot, uphill, with heavy packs.

One reporter was struck by how easily the Cubans acclimated to their surroundings. “I’m awestruck watching young Dr. Noa asking an elderly man about … his pain in Urdu.” The doctor shrugged off praise: “I’ve lived here for a couple of months already. … It’s not easy, but I like it. It’s like camping and I’m a trooper!”

In her diary, Pakistani reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy writes, “The stench of dead bodies still lingers. … Families huddle close together. … The tent I was sharing was freezing cold. My fingers and toes were numb as I struggled to sleep. In the tent behind me a baby wailed. No photograph, television news piece can do justice to what these people are going through.”

The Cubans demonstrated cultural sensitivity in the face of religious, language and educational differences. Many Pakistani women do not accept medical care from men. Lives were saved because half of the Cuban doctors were women.

“The Cuban doctors are incredible,” reports Dr. Italo Subbaro from Baltimore. “I found a woman with a fractured femur. I called Juan Carlos. … They operated on her. Now I go to see her and find her looking at the river and the mountain with a smile. … Thank God that the Cuban doctors are here.”

Army Chief of Staff Major General Nadeem confessed, “We never dreamt that the Cubans would come to this part of the world. … What I saw during my tour is an expression of the professionalism, commitment and determination of every one of you.” A colleague, Colonel Atif Shafique, agreed: “Cuba is now in my blood and in my sentiments.”

The world, all too familiar with U.S. military planes shuttling Pakistani men to the infamous U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, can now, for example, observe Cuban planes bringing Pakistani children to Cuba for rehabilitation, prostheses and extra care.

Cuba’s approach to medicine places human interests first. In Castro’s words, “We train [doctors] with the most modern educational technology, with the ethics necessary for them to have as the precept of their future duty to human beings, and for them to have as their essential purpose the spreading of health.”