I went to Cuba, met gracious people and realized how pretentious we can be

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(Note: This is part of our First Person series. Logan Stewart is the Director of Public Relations for OrthoCarolina and a volunteer for Operation Walk Carolinas. OrthoCarolina is a sponsor of this site, but this is not part of that sponsorship)

When I first took Paula’s photograph, she was on an exam table at CIMEQ, a medical hospital in Havana, Cuba. Paula was there because she desperately needed a knee replacement.

CIMEQ was previously the personal hospital to former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who lived nearby.

I was in Havana last week with Operation Walk Carolinas, a team of surgeons and medical workers from OrthoCarolina, Carolinas Healthcare and Novant Health to perform hip and knee replacements.

Over three and a half days, the group performed 51 joint replacements, some bilateral, on 46 patients. Once they recover from surgery, some will be able to walk and go back to work for the first time in years.

I saw Paula and took her photo again in the PACU (post anesthesia care unit) just before she went into surgery. I still didn’t know her name but I asked her in my feeble Spanish if she needed anything.

Tears welled up in her eyes, and then tears welled up in my eyes. She was about to have surgery, everyone was speaking English and she was scared. I held her hand all the way down the hall as they wheeled her to the operating room. Sometimes you don’t need to speak the same language to communicate.

Cuba has free healthcare, but because of its history and years of embargo due to a communist government, hospitals lack basic supplies.

Medical technologies and specialized care like joint replacements are relatively nonexistent. It’s also worth noting that the average Cuban makes $20-25 per month, so even if they wanted to leave the country, most can’t afford the exit papers which cost several hundred dollars.

Later, I met 83-year old Ricardo, one of the most precious little old men I’ve ever seen, in the PACU.

He had just come out of surgery, also for a new knee. He reached forward to hold my face and kiss both cheeks, a customary greeting, and seemed almost giddy, which could have been partly due to the remnants of anesthesia but I like to think he’s just a jovial person.

He squeezed my hands and said nuestros gobiernos no siempre han sido amigos, pero ahora Cuba y Estados Unidos, un abrazo, para siempre.”

Our governments have not always been friends, but now Cuba and the United States hug forever.

I visited Paula in her hospital room the day after her surgery. She introduced me to her niece and we took a photo together. She said to me ”por favor dígales a estos cirujanos gracias. Gracias por preocuparse por nuestra gente.”

Please tell these surgeons thank you. Thank you for caring about our people.

Later that afternoon, I watched Paula take her first steps using a walker. We all cried. I took her photo again.

Paula, Ricardo and the rest of the patients will stay in Cuba and recover with the help of Cuban physical therapists. The hospitals don’t provide much of what they need, including water, so their families bring most supplies. It’s rare to find toilet paper or soap anywhere in the country, including in a hospital (at the airport there was no toilet paper, soap or seat on the toilet. Forget paper towels).

Cubans learn to make do with what they have because goods are scarce. They share and they improvise.

If you wander the streets of Havana you’ll discover there are hardly any stores or supermarkets, because of an economy that is struggling to find its way in a still state-run, though somewhat less strict, environment.

Havana Vieja, or Old Havana, not too far from our hospital, is flanked by ostentatious buildings, clearly once bright and bold, fading and crumbling from years of disrepair and neglect. Long gone are the glorious days of Hemingway. Instead, along its narrow streets are people sitting in doorways, some amputees, giant garbage bins, and stray dogs running around everywhere. It’s stunning to behold, but you feel almost awkward calling it stunning or remarkable or any word that reflects beautiful.

I want to ask, “This is for real? This exists?” It does. And not just in Cuba, but all over the world.

I came home from Cuba last Tuesday. I watched two people at the gym get into an argument over how long one had been using the treadmill during peak workout time. I’m helping plan a baby shower and while I’m thrilled to pieces for my friend, all I can think about is the $75 cake I’m buying and what that $75 would pay for in Cuba.

We worry about things like which dinner subscription service to order and matching our lululemon tops and bottoms and OMG, if I have to call the cable company one more time, I’ll scream.

America has a resplendent stage front and center on the globe, wealthy and basking in superstardom status. I’m on that stage with you all. But when we look out at the audience around us we’re often blinded.

They’re out there, and they’re much bigger than us.

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