A trip to the doctor

I can’t mention the trip to Cuba without also mentioning CJ’s accident. I mention it because in the past I’ve heard so much about the grand Cuban health system – I’m sure we all have – but what I saw was nothing like this.

The smallest stumble on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad left her with a dislocated and fractured little toe. A nearby taxi whisked us to the clinic, where after waiting for a short time, we were taken by ambulance to a home where the local doctor was on a house call. In the back of an ambulance he re-located the toe and sent us on to the hospital for an x-ray.

And it was here that I saw so many contradictions. The doctors were clearly well trained, and knew what they were doing, but yet the setting in which they were doing it left a lot to be desired. It was a concrete building with peeling pink paint, with a semi-open air waiting room that had only concrete slab benches. A visit to one of the bathrooms on one of the wards left me really surprised – no running water.

The radiologist that saw CJ was kind, polite and efficient. We were into the radiology suite – decked out with the most modern equipment – in less than 15 minutes of arriving, which would be record-breaking time back in Australia. The films came back, confirmed the fracture, and then CJ’s poor foot was bandaged up, and we were on our way back to the first clinic to pay for the treatment.

Here again, another surprise for us. When we asked for crutches for CJ, we could only get one, not two. Puzzled, we took what we could get. And then on the way back to the guesthouse where we were staying, with CJ in the back, the ambulance driver started trying to convince me to stay at the guesthouse he ran. He said he would waive the ambulance fee of $20 if we went to stay with him, except moving at this point was really not an option for us. So we paid – only to find out later from the clinic that the ambulances shouldn’t charge a fee. Cheeky sod.

Anyway the bigger problem for CJ only having one crutch. How does one walk with a broken foot and one crutch? Well, you don’t. You hop for a bit and then find other modes of transport. And so for next few days we flagged down all manner of passing transport for CJ; a horse, a horse & cart, a motorbike and taxis. There was also a very friendly waiter who carried her in his arms for a spell, and of course Alex, who piggy-backed her around for a day.

We went back to the hospital for one more check-up, and at that point CJ was able to buy a second crutch, which helped a bit for walking short distances. Interestingly, back at our guesthouse we spoke to the owner about the problem of crutches. Turns out while CJ had to pay about $75 convertible pesos for the pair of them, so too would any Cuban. Which sounds just fine, until you realise the average Cuban wage is $25 convertible pesos a month. If you break your leg and you’re not able to front up three months salary for a pair of crutches, seems it’s just hard luck. Or perhaps its off to the black market to see what can be found.

Incidentally, this $25 wage is the same earned by most Cubans, including the doctors. They may earn marginally more, but not much. They are trained and then employed by the state, and apparently that amount is quite sufficient for their doctors. With tips, waiters are able to earn more than this, and we heard a few stories of doctors chucking it in to become waiters.

All of this left me wondering just how good the Cuban health system really is. I’m sure it works fairly well for the important heads of state and perhaps also rich foreigners who wish to have treatments at the major Havana hospitals, but what of the ordinary Cubans out in the regions? Once again, I was reminded of just how good things are back at home.

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