Cuban doctors share their experiences in internationalist missions

by Nuria Barbosa León
November 26, 2015
Reprinted from Granma

Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.

In November of 1965, the first class of doctors and dentists trained after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 graduated, and several of these youth departed shortly thereafter to serve in distant lands. Granma International spoke with some of them.

Manuel Felpeto Fernández [right] arrived in the Algerian city of Inkerman in 1968, to find a country immersed in social change after winning its independence from France, and attempting to improve its precarious health care system.

“Infectious disease, skin and eye problems abounded. The prices of medicines were beyond the reach of the population, and the sick quickly became seriously ill. We made a great effort to organize the public health care system, and provide better medical coverage,” said Felpeto, now a professor.

The work in Algeria changed Felpeto’s life personally and professionally. Being selected to participate in an international mission at that time was a great privilege, and allowed him to face medical challenges that were being eradicated in Cuba. The experience also influenced his decision to specialize in gynecology and obstetrics.

“I was able to save the lives of several women with postpartum complications. Traditionally, births take place at home, without medical assistance, in unfavorable hygienic conditions. Upon arriving to the hospital, their deteriorating condition was evident, and we had to act immediately and correctly. That is why I dedicated my life to this specialty,” Felpeto said.

After completing his social service in the mountains of Cienfuegos, in 1966, Juan René Perdomo Silveira [left], also a gynecologist, offered his solidarity in Mali.

In Africa, he took up the struggle against malaria, malnutrition, leprosy and tuberculosis in several cities near the border with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, treating patients in need of general medicine, pediatric and gynecological services.

“Completing this internationalist mission gave me the opportunity to experience first hand the big differences in the world. I worked in a country that possesses abundant natural resources, and with a very poor population that lacked the elemental means to live. I saw people die of parasitism and curable diseases because they didn’t have the money to pay for a doctor’s visit.”

Eulogio Deschapelles Himely [right], now a cardiologist, worked in Guinea Bissau from 1969 through1971, in areas of military conflict and explained, “We lived for two years in irregular conditions, in camps set up by the guerillas, with food in short supply, treating those wounded in combat and tending to the civilian population, who increasingly sought out our medical services.”

“The hygienic-sanitary situation was terrible. We worked with nurses from the population with insufficient professional training and a low level of education. We were obliged to first teach them the basic principles of patient management.”

Later, in 1987, Dr. Deschapelles worked in Angola, treating heart patients in Luanda’s Central Military Hospital.

He has not retired and says he will continue teaching until the end of his life, having mentored 48 masters and doctoral students.

Ophthalmologist Yrma de la Cantera Medina [left] currently works in Venezuela, and over her 50-year career has responded to the call for solidarity on six occasions. Her first mission was to Algeria, 1982 to 1984.

“At that time, they called me because of I had finished my specialty studies with very good results, and my professional work was considered outstanding,” she said, adding, “Being selected meant you were among the best. I was called upon to perform a large number of surgeries, and I learned to take my cap and mask with me, to enter the operating room at any time of day.”

She studied English to work in Belize, in 1994, passing a rigorous proficiency exam, and served as an assistant professor in Haiti (1998) and Equatorial Guinea (2000-2002), to prepare ophthalmologists in these countries.

Dr. Yrma speaks passionately about Mission Miracle, which she helped launch in Venezuela, diagnosing patients in that country who would then receive surgery in Cuba.

She insists that it is difficult to find words to describe the satisfaction she feels when patients thank her for returning their vision, adding, “When I was a child, I wanted to be a doctor to treat other children. I didn’t chose pediatrics because I responded to the country’s need for specialists, but if I were born again, I wouldn’t hesitate to become an ophthalmologist.”