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Cuban healthcare travels any distance

medico cubano“And where are you from?” That was the inevitable greeting in the presence of a young woman, small in statute, but undertaking work of a huge dimension. Her name: Edenys Reyes Galán. She was 27 years old and I met her at the doors of the Los Manacales Popular Medical Office (CMP), in Casacoima, one of the municipalities of Venezuela’s easternmost state, Delta Amacuro.

Cheerful and active, the young doctor, a Comprehensive General Medicine specialist, immediately answered: “I’m from Bayamo, the land of the Father of the Cuban Homeland.” Just thinking about the difference between that lively eastern Cuban city and this isolated place, surrounded by mountains and thick forests, I admired her sacrifice and dedication to what she did every day.

I discovered that she had been in Venezuela for 22 months, a year of which at this CMP in an extremely poor community, where she lived accompanied by a young man from the Into the Neighborhood Sports Mission. The two of them had the noble mission of attending inhabitants of the remote area, in which the “health house,” as some called it, was like a light in the dark.

Minutes later, she invited me to have a coffee, and we moved to the small kitchen of her home, which consisted of two bedrooms, plus the area where she cared for her patients, and the dispensary, converted into a kind of pharmacy. In the very well looked after backyard, stood a beautiful fruit tree and many flowers, in a tropical Cuban garden style.

Edenys tells me that one of the most difficult tasks she faced upon arriving was to complete a community health diagnosis, which consisted of walking for days, visiting each and every house, along inhospitable and unknown roads, where she had no idea that there were houses.

“We treat 10-15 patients daily, who come from distant places, but this is the only option they have to receive medical services. Previously they didn’t have any, and the main illnesses are still due to parasites they ingest from the water, and bad hygiene,” she explains.

“Now they at least know what measures to take to make the water more drinkable and look after themselves a little better.”

Respiratory problems are also recurrent, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, adolescent pregnancy, the doctor continued, while insisting that she must devote as much time as possible to educational talks, be it in people’s homes, or meetings organized with the support of the Communal Council, which are less frequent due to the distances between homes.

“I notice that the talks have had a great impact, especially among young people and adolescents. At first I had to take initiative, and learn a lot from their customs and ways of being, of talking, of living together, and I had to be very careful, win them over, make them feel that I am part of the family and that I just want to help them,” she stresses.

For the young collaborator, one of the most sensitive tasks she performs is the rehabilitation and care of bedridden patients, or those unable to travel to see her. Accompanied always by the Sports Mission teacher, she travels several kilometers a week to wherever she is most needed, and help injured or disabled people to recover and become reincorporated into society.

She clarifies: “This is perhaps one of the most difficult and humane actions that we carry out. Sometimes in the afternoon, after those long days, one is very tired, but we feel good due to their appreciation. A smile from one patient is enough to sleep peacefully, and wake up the next day with more energy. We can’t rest as long as there is someone who needs us.”

In Edenys’ doctor’s office/house, there is a “historical corner” with images of Cuban and Latin American heroes and martyrs. They include Che, Fidel and Chávez, as well as a beautiful poster of her home city of Bayamo. In the kitchen, she prepares a delicious congrís (rice and beans), a typical dish that can’t be lacking, although she notes that she misses her mother’s, “The best in the world.”

As an only child, she is the “little girl” back home, despite her age. This is also how some of her patients first regarded her, due to her small stature. She tells her parents a lot about what she does and experiences in these lands, especially how well she is treated by the humblest people, whose lives she helps to improve. “Well, I tell them almost everything,” she comments, smiling shyly, “It’s better that way, so as not to worry them.”

Sometimes she goes several weeks without talking to them because of telephone coverage difficulties. When she needs to buy significant supplies, she is obliged to travel long distances, as she is located 320 kilometers by road from Tucupita, the capital of Delta Amacuro.

Dr. Edenys warmly recalls the polyclinic where she worked before traveling to Venezuela. “But it is a great experience to share with other people from another culture and to learn, to strive so hard every day. Here there is great tranquility because there is such a small population near the clinic, and it is really different from Bayamo, my city, which is so lively, to which I dedicate so many thoughts, especially at night, when I am resting. But it is very rewarding to help these people, offer them a spirit of optimism,” she reiterates.

Edenys offers me some coconut water, which is very refreshing in the high temperature. As I drink it, I ask her for an anecdote that has deeply marked her during her mission: “A lady arrived at 11:00 p.m. with labor pains, with the child’s little head already poking out, and I barely had time to do anything. She gave birth to a beautiful baby almost standing at the door of my office, and we did it all by ourselves, even the Sports teacher assisted me. What a pretty baby! Just imagine, they named her after me, and I almost jumped for joy,” she says excitedly.

Moments later there is a knock at the door. A young man asks for medical assistance. Edenys takes him to her office and after a brief examination begins to take his blood pressure. I excuse myself and bid her farewell. She hugs me like someone close and thanks me for the brief visit: “It is always good to have close people, from the homeland, to talk, to feel accompanied, even for a while, wherever we are. I invite you to Bayamo on my return, where you can make yourself at home at my house, and my parents will love it. I will tell them about you.”

For the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about Edenys, what she did there, her devotion to the people of that secluded place, and her smile. “You are the true heroes,” the Five Cuban Heroes told our collaborators during their visit to Venezuela back in May 2015, and one of them, Gerardo Hernández, reiterated it when visiting Caracas recently as part of the Cuban delegation to the 18th Latin American and Caribbean Students’ Congress.

Young people like her are the protagonists of the daily endeavors of our people around the world. Meeting her reinforced in me the idea that anything is possible when it comes to saving a life, although often that can mean embracing the solitude of the forests, and the silence of the most unimaginable distances.

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