John B. Harris MD

My time in Cuba…a look back

My time in Cuba…a look back

 

While the president is traveling to Cuba I thought it timely to remember my travel to Cuba 15 years ago to help Cuban surgeons with breast reconstruction and other reconstructive surgeries.

I was inspired to travel to Cuba by my neighbor and good friend, Clint Andrews, who himself was traveling to his church mission in central Cuba. Travel in and out of Cuba at the time was not as accepted and organized as it is today, resulting in us having to take a Russian Aeroflot light flight from Nassau, Bahamas to Havana, Cuba. Clint was able to get through the Cuban immigration area easily, however I was held up and taken to a room for questioning by the officials who had spread out on a table the plastic surgical textbooks I had brought for the Cuban surgeons. I was pretty sure they were very interested with the very graphic intra operative and cadaver photos of muscle flaps that are used in major plastic surgery reconstruction procedures and it took some doing to get the government official to understand I was there to do some good. For a brief moment I thought I had made a mistake coming on this trip.

I did make it through though and once outside the airport, seeing the parade of 1950’s American cars on the road, I knew I was in a different place and that I had made the right choice.

My host was a cardiologist who practiced in Havana and received a salary of $300 a month. I was put up at the Habana Libre Hotel which was the old Havana Hilton that had been taken over by Castro in 1959 to be used as his revolutionary headquarters. My first taste of what the Cuban people endure was displayed in the hotel lobby where my host was told to leave the lobby as no Cubans were allowed any further past the registration desk. Not being able to walk into a public establishment just did not seem right, but was perfectly acceptable and normal to my host. Clint left for the church mission in central Cuba and I was to get involved with the local plastic and general surgeons.

clint clinic door with host

My first day was spent at the hospital Calixito Garcia which was named after a general who fought for Cuban independence in 1895. There I met with a group of young surgeons who were eager to learn breast reconstruction techniques. Breast reconstruction is not a medical priority in Cuba and most women are not offered reconstruction after mastectomy. Breast implants are very hard to come by in Cuba and therefore the surgeons were primarily interested in advanced breast reconstruction techniques using the patient’s own tissues.

The decision to bring textbooks illustrating reconstructive techniques was a good one and the surgeons were very glad to have them for their library and personal education. To the one, the surgeons were very bright and interested and appeared starving for medical information. They have been told that Cuba has the world’s finest health system, but know the truth.

 

The streets were full of people during the day. Good work is hard to find – and most jobs pay the same $30 a month. My taxi driver worked as a computer programmer for $30 a month. He was starved for international news of any kind. He and his friends had a satellite dish that they bought on the black market from the Bahamas that they placed on the roof at 1:00am every night to watch international TV. He said they were careful to take the antenna down by 5:00am as government patrols were always looking. However, the young who are out and about everywhere seem very happy. They are the generation that has never known any better.

surgeons lounge with anesthesiologist crumbling

The reopening of Cuba to the US is inevitable and the curious will certainly come as they should to see a city and country that has been off limits to a generation of Americans and which in some respects has seemed to stand still in time. those who have left Cuba will have difficulty with the physical appearance of the country that they were forced to leave, but may find solace in the reconnection to the culture and people of their homeland. I look forward to returning with my family to see more of the country, but moreover for the people and culture of the country…and to reconnect with those I met ever so briefly 15 years ago.

plastic surgeon group photo