Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Cuba doctors popular in quake-stricken Java
About half of the Cuban doctors in Indonesia are women
Many of the international aid teams that descended on Indonesia after the 27 May earthquake in Java, have packed up and gone home. But a medical team from Cuba has proved so popular that locals have asked it to stay on for another six months.
More than two months after the quake, the 135-strong Cuban team sees up to 1,000 patients a day at two field hospitals set up in the earthquake zone, 30km (18 miles) from Jogyakarta.
Nearby, there are crushed houses and rubble - ugly reminders of the earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed 100,000 homes.
The Cubans are the last hope for many Indonesians given the scant primary health care services provided by the government in Jakarta.
But it is not only here in Java that they are playing an important role - Cuban medical teams have quietly assumed a major role in global humanitarian relief operations usually seen as the domain of wealthy nations.
Last October, Havana sent more than 2,000 medical staff to Pakistan and set up 30 field hospitals after the earthquake there, treating more than 1.5 million people.
The two Cuban hospitals in Java are fully-equipped with X-ray machines, laboratories, operating rooms and specialists to handle the broken bones and other injuries common to earthquake victims.
* CUBAN HELP IN JAVA, Two field hospitals, 47,000 patients treated since June, 900 operations performed, 2,000 people immunised against tetanus.
In Prambanan Field Hospital, Dr Luis Sandoval says he has few problems in understanding his patients. He says: "Communication is good thanks to the translators," referring to a group of volunteer interpreters, many of them Indonesian medical students.
Inside the huge consultation tent, several patients are examined at the same time by a team of family doctors.
About half of the 65 Cuban doctors are women, a great advantage in Muslim countries, where women may be reluctant to be examined by a male doctor.
"Most important is the relationship between doctors and patients," explains Cuban doctor Oscar Putol, who works in the Intensive Care Unit at the Gantiwarno field hospital. "The patients trust us - they appreciate we are not just doctors, we are also human beings."
Khalida Ahmad of Unicef, who witnessed Cuban teams working in the Pakistan emergency, agrees: "They treat patients like people, not just cases. Everyone I spoke to from the affected areas was so grateful. They felt they could always go to the Cuban doctors to ask a question, despite language difficulties."
Most of the Cubans had previous experience in Indonesia and Sri Lanka helping survivors of the massive tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean in December 2004.
Regional health co-ordinator Dr Ronny Rockito in Klaten is enthusiastic about the impact of Cuban aid.
"I appreciate the Cuban medical team. Their style is very friendly. Their medical standard is very high. The Cuban hospitals are fully complete and it's free, with no financial support from our government. We give our special thanks to Fidel Castro," he says.
Few quake victims either in Pakistan or Indonesia expected Cuba to come to their rescue.
"We felt very surprised about doctors coming from a poor country, a country so far away that we know little about," Dr Rockito says.
"We can learn from the Cuban health system. They are very fast to handle injuries and fractures. They X-ray, then they operate straight away.
"People are coming from Jogyakarta, many not affected by the earthquake, to get free treatment and because they are too poor to pay. The people are very glad it is free," he adds.
After one doctor performed a caesarean section, the grateful parents decided to name their child "Cuba" in appreciation.
Cuba currently has about 20,000 doctors working in 68 countries across three continents, without much being said about it.
Havana rejects any suggestion of strings attached to its aid.
"We are here purely out of humanitarian motives - we hope that governments around the world will see that health is most important," says Dr Putol.
From the early days of the 1959 revolution, President Fidel Castro prioritised education and health as pillars of the new society, and the Caribbean island now has the highest ratio of doctors per person in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Many things could change in a post-Castro era, but most Cubans would fiercely resist any attempt to undermine the extraordinary success of their health system.