Predictably, the headlines have shifted away from post-quake Haiti. While millions wait for the billions pledged in March at the UN donor’s conference, emergency medical staff continue to retire from the country. For many Haitians, survival is uncertain. For others, death is inevitable. Tens of thousands of families still struggle for shelter, food, water, and a sense of safety. Even a modicum of security—a lock on a bathroom door, a clean bucket of water— is received as a small blessing in this most unearthly of circumstances.
A rather big blessing to come from this unprecedented disaster, however, is the emergence of new South-South partnerships to help rebuild the Haitian health system. In March, a tripartite accord between Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil was signed to this end, with Brazil pledging US$80 million—the South American country’s biggest international health cooperation commitment to date. The first stage of that cooperation provides for construction and equipping of 10 hospitals; four are already near completion. The second stage focuses on training health professionals to staff the Haitian public health system— a huge and pressing challenge considering Haiti has only 2.7 physicians for every 10,000 inhabitants, far shy of the minimum 25 recommended by the World Health Organization.
This effort is complemented by other South-South cooperation, including a commitment led by Venezuela under the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of the Americas (ALBA). This ongoing plan calls for the construction of 30 comprehensive health centers, 30 community hospitals with state-of-the-art technology, 30 physical therapy centers, a prosthetics factory and three medical equipment repair workshops. So far, 20 of the health centers, 28 of the hospitals and all the physical therapy centers—staffed by Cuban doctors and Latin American Medical School graduates—are already treating patients. All services are free of charge. The generosity of this commitment was highlighted by Dominican President Leonel Fernández at the recent World Summit for the Future of Haiti, where Cuba presented its emergency medical effort, valued at US$690 million, and results thus far.
Since 1998, through tropical storms, floods, social unrest, and now the hemisphere’s most deadly earthquake, Cuban health professionals have been providing free care throughout Haiti. A month after the January 12 quake, these Cuban doctors, nurses, and health technicians were joined by over 700 graduates and students of the Latin American Medical School from 27 countries. Each of these young professionals pledged to work in Haiti at least through the emergency phase. Many, however, committed to a year of service during which they have the option of obtaining their family medicine, internal medicine, or surgical specialty studying under Cuban professors.
On May 11, a ceremony was held on the outskirts of Havana for some of the ELAM-traineddoctors returning from Haiti. They were joined by colleagues from Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico and elsewhere, ELAM graduates who were about to depart for a year of service in Haiti. The group was received by a phalanx of Cuban dignitaries including Minister of Public Health c, Vice Minister Marcia Cobas, ELAM Rector Dr Juan Carrizo and Dr Midalys Castilla, ELAM Academic Vice Rector.
Haitian Health: Today’s Reality
The simple ceremony featured no speeches by the health officials, but rather the personal stories of the returning doctors.”Your life will be divided into before and after Haiti,” Dr Ana Rosa Santa Anna Tavares from Brazil told her colleagues about to depart. “I see things differently now.” According to these doctors, what they saw wasn’t always pretty—or reported.
“The epidemiological situation is very complicated. Families have no way to boil water. Children have no shoes,” said Dr Yesica Mendoza from Colombia. “You’re going to see diseases you’ve never seen before and you’ll have to go into the field, into people’s homes and tents, because patients don’t have the money to go to the hospital. The only cadaver I saw in Haiti was an 18-year old boy who wasn’t taken to the hospital because his family was too poor.” Dr Mendoza emphasized that this is why the Cuban-led contingent’s free treatment of patients is so important.
A Dream Come True
But the dire Haitian reality experienced by these ELAM graduates is tempered by their dedication and training. Equal parts science and conscience, the ELAM adheres to a socially responsible curriculum that combines an evidence-based medical education with a humanistic understanding of health as a right for all. This too, came through loud and clear as the doctors spoke.
“This is our dream…to work as doctors with people who need care,” said Dr Menendez. Another ELAM-trained doctor from Argentina echoed this sense of fulfillment and obligation: “Haiti has so many needs.
These people just can’t be abandoned.” The emotion was palpable in the auditorium as one doctor after another shared their feelings. “What future do these babies have? What will become of their lives? They deserve more. They deserve the best in the world,” said Dr Santa Anna Tavares.
“We had the most beautiful experiences working in the field,” the young Brazilian doctor continued. “The Haitians never, ever rejected us. We were always welcomed into their homes, invited to sit, and treated like family. You’ll see difficulties in Haiti,” she told her colleagues, “but you’ll also forge solutions.”
Like all of us in attendance that afternoon, the panel of Cuban dignitaries was visibly moved. Minister Balaguer leaned into the microphone: “You cannot imagine the satisfaction it gives us to see you applying your practical knowledge to improve the health of Haitians. Everything you’ve shared here nourishes our vision, gives us energy to transform the world. The world needs transformation and you are the ones capable of making it happen.”
For Dr Mendoza from Colombia, this wasn’t just rhetoric: “Haiti was an incredible learning experience for me, personally and professionally. I learned
that you have to look for tools and ways to make things work. I learned that if you knock on doors, those doors will open. In Haiti, I felt one step closer to my dream of changing the world.”