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Published On: Sun, Oct 26th, 2014

Heroes dressed in white

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By Leticia Martínez Hernández

Cuba recently sent a medical team of 165, consisting of 63 doctors and 102 nurses, to Sierra Leone to support efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak. It is a mission they were happy to undertake and it goes right into the heart of Cuba’s people-to-people solidarity.

That evening, two people were celebrating their birthdays. I don’t know how old they were, and right then it didn’t seem to matter, given that in a few moments they would be setting off to perhaps the last place anyone would want to go. On the tarmac of José Martí International Airport they boarded the IL-96 plane which would take them directly to Sierra Leone.

Those two people were Dr. Eldys Rodríguez and Dr. Roberto Ponce, who just before making their way to the plane received “happy birthday” greetings from hundreds of Cuban healthcare professionals. These same professionals had immediately said yes when they were asked if they would travel to Africa. How could they have refused, given that since the first time they had sat down for a class at the faculty of medicine, they were taught to cherish the gift of saving lives?

Dr. Rodríguez had just hugged his family. He had reassured them. “They know I have to go. This is a historic moment which I have to live. Right now, with the plane ready to leave, I am full of happiness, nostalgia, sentiment for my Revolution, determination to push forwards, to prevent this illness from spreading, to prevent it from reaching my country. This is another of life’s tests, on the day of my birthday; it must be a good sign.”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking but, are you scared?”

“No, only cautious”, he responded, smiling.

Standing next to him is Dr. Roberto Ponce, a tall and confident man, who has also dedicated his life to medicine. He specializes in comprehensive family medicine, and is an intensive care nurse, with a diploma in intensive care, and a master’s in medical sciences. Sierra Leone will certainly boast the best specialists to help fight Ebola.

I suspected that Ponce had been part of more than one heroic endeavor. And I was right. “I was in Sri Lanka, when the tsunami hit in 2004; and from 2005 to 2007 I worked in Lesotho in southern Africa. So this is my third mission.” Now about to return to the continent of Africa, he acknowledges that “this mission will be difficult.” But he looks calm. The preparation he has received in the previous weeks has equipped him with all the necessary precautionary tools. Surprisingly he has another confession:

“Illnesses don’t scare me. I am more afraid of that plane over there.” I try to weigh up these men, heroes in the flesh, with glorious accomplishments, and others still to be realized, with memories, joys and fears; men who have decided, despite the risks, to dedicate their lives to others.

Cuban President Raúl Castro Ruz shook hands with each of them before they boarded the plane; wishing them a safe journey and swift return; telling them to take care of themselves and offering words of encouragement. In response they asked him to trust in the Brigade; and give the Comandante en Jefe an embrace on their part; some stood firm before the Army General; others with their hands on their hearts…

That was how Cuba bid farewell to the team of 165 internationalist collaborators, consisting of 63 doctors and 102 nurses from across the country, with more than 15 years practical experience and of which 81 % had served on previous international missions.

They said goodbye to the homeland for a while, reaffirming the unquestionable fact that Cuba doesn’t give what it has left over, but the best of what it has, its most precious commodity: its sons, its heroes in white coats.

Courtesy Pambazuka News


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