Published: July 1st 2011August 4th 2010
People laughed when I told them I was riding a bike through Cuba. Veronica at work, humoured at my distress (when I discovered one of the riding days was 98km) added me on facebook, promising to closely follow my demise.
But I remained determined and during my 2 weeks prior at a friend’s place in Mexico City; I made the conscious effort to use the stairs to the ninth floor; even when I returned to his place roaring drunk.
On day three of the bike trip when the temp once again was rising into the forties and the humidity remained above 90% Jose* took me to the hospital. I had awoken at 3 am the morning prior with severe pains in my stomach which even with a generous helping of drugs, did not subside. I fell asleep in the support vehicle that Juan* drove then Jose lined up for me in the hospital cue. I've never been admitted to a hospital, let alone one of 3rd world standard but who was I to begrudge free healthcare.
When the time came to go inside I was ushered down a narrow corridor with a cement floor while swarms of people, visiting or sick, lined the walls. I must have been a site to them; tourists go to tourist hospitals and the closest was back in Havana. Jose led me by my arm into the doctor’s room and seated me at a wooden table. The doctor asked a lot of questions, and for the time past since and my present time delirium I can't remember which language she asked them in, but Jose answered los todos.
Soon I was ushered into a room with pastel pink walls, chipped through to the cement, smudged and with mould growing in the upper corners. It was small with three beds crammed inside almost touching with one occupant; a young boy of about 8 years. Apart from the bed there was a metal poke standing erect next to my bed and across the room; an industrial looking oxygen tank. The windows had big crosses of masting tape - from the last hurricane I guessed. A nurse soon came in to attach a drip. Like the other nurses she worse a crisp white linen outfit and matching hair piece pinned to the back of her head. She reminded me of WWII nurses with their round toed shoes and square uniforms. I stared at the ceiling trying to distract myself from the needle going in. The two light fittings, rectangular in shape, clung to the drooping ceiling. Of the four pockets where the light tubing was fitted, only one remained - I presume to economise on electricity. I was nervous despite the nurse’s immaculate presentation and was arrogant enough to check she was wearing gloves. I noted that she swabbed my arm with iodine and drew the needle from a sterilised packet. God forbid I had to pull her up and look like a first world and thankless brat but I rationalised that sepacaemia trumped civil pleasantries.
Jose sat in a chair beside my bed telling me about Cuba. He told me stories about its people and history in hushed tones. He told me about another tour guide who lost his job for saying that the second capital of Cuba was Miami. An Ecuadorian guy with communist leanings reported on him and his career ended overnight.
He told me that in Miami, if you want to buy a "Cuba Libre" (Free Cuba) the locals make a gesture to signify Fidels long beard and then they run a thumb across their neck to signal 'when Fidel is dead'.
When it was time to use the bathroom I had to carry my drip bag with me holding it above my shoulder so my blood didn't run up the tube. The bathroom was off the doctor’s room and had no door, so that I had to open the doctor’s door to shield the gap. The problem was a 3 inch gap opened up into the hallway where the many patients awaited treatment and I could see Jose in the next room across the hall. A nurse went into the corridor and stood in the gap for me while I did a one-handed aerobic trick disrobing while watching my blood slowly creep up into the bag.
The next two visits were similarly uncomfortable and 2 drips, a sleep and an injection later I was declared healthy and released in José’s care.
It deserves mention: the meticulous and caring attitude of all the staff at the clinic. Here in Australia I have made two attempts in my life to see a doctor at the hospital. In both situations 5 hours past without being seen and I was regarded with raw discontent when I enquired as to the length of the wait and eventually went home untreated. It's not just our beaucratic deficiencies that lack, but empathy too. It is not a criticism but rather a complement to the people that cared for me that day: the doctors or nurses in Vinales were kind and attentive, and completely selfless. At the end of my stay after my care and meds, I was expected to pay nothing to them.
Yes, the hospital was rundown but at least I got to see the inside walls.