By Nuria Barbosa León on November 15, 2017
At the end of his mission, Eduardo received a letter that read: “You made a difference…You did not just bring us health, but life. You can return to your homeland with your head held high like a good revolutionary soldier
It is difficult to summarize in a just few lines the work of Dr. Eduardo Ojeda Timoneda, Comprehensive Family Medicine (MGI) specialist, who has participated on several Cuban medical missions to aid victims of natural disasters and other catastrophes.
In email correspondence with Granma International Ojeda Timoneda explained that his first mission took him to Indonesia from January through February, 2005, where he worked in the regions worst affected by the tsunami, providing medical treatment to the population, who were housed in temporary shelters while new homes were being built.
He explained that the Cuban medical brigade and other international aid workers were based at a campsite with only the most basic sanitary conditions and shared bathrooms.
According to the Cuban healthcare professional, one of the most interesting, moving, and delicate tasks during the brigade’s time in Indonesia was treating children, many of whom had lost both parents in the disaster.
During consultations doctors asked the youngsters to do a drawing of anything they liked, and all presented pictures of their families and homes, which they had lost in the tsunami.
Eduardo remembers two siblings in particular: one, an eight year old girl called Erly and the other, a four year old boy named Eddy; both of whom spoke English. Eddy drew a plane with the word “Cuba” on its wings and signed the picture before giving it to Eduard, whom both siblings excitedly embraced just before the brigade departed. Smiling and waving, Eddy and Erly ran after the vans transporting the Cuban medical professionals as they left for the airport.
In September 2005, Dr. Eduardo volunteered to join the Henry Reeve Contingent, specialized in large-scale disasters and serious epidemics. He attended the ceremony inaugurating the brigade on September 19, during which the historic leader of the Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz offered to send 1,586 doctors, 36 tons of medicine and basic diagnostic resources to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the United States; an offer that was rejected by then President George W Bush.
Nonetheless, in October that same year he travelled to Guatemala, where he worked in the Chimaltenango region in a community called San Rafael de Sumatán. The area’s population, the majority of whom are coffee growers, were cut off following heavy rains, flooding, and mudslides. Residents lived in houses made of wooden planks and mud, and had never seen a doctor before. There, Dr. Ojeda Timoneda worked alongside a Guatemalan nurse, who lived opposite the clinic.
The day after arrival, they began to offer consultations, starting at seven in the morning and finishing at eight in the evening.
Their work consisted mainly of comprehensive community care, with a focus on vulnerable groups and small neighbouring communities. Eduardo left early in the morning and walked three or four hours to reach these settlements, where he would visit residents in their homes, before returning on foot.
There, with the help of the nurse, the Cuban medical professional distributed medicines in accordance with patients’ needs. He also set up an emergency room to treat those who suffered accidents in the coffee fields.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ojeda Timoneda sought authorization from the leaders of the community to train a group of youths aged 15-17 to help carry out illness prevention and health education actions. These young people would visit homes and speak to residents about their health, before undertaking relevant actions.
Later, members suggested that the group be named after Guatemalan guerrilla Luis Augusto Turcios Lima, a proposal which was accepted.
Eduardo also recalls how he spent his birthday, October 28, in that country. The nurse and youths arrived early to the surgery to sing him “Solo le pido a Dios.”
Meanwhile, he was also named vanguard of the medical mission for his outstanding work, by the head of the Cuban Medical Brigade during a ceremony held in the Guatemalan capital, where he received a distinction from the Cuban ambassador in the country.
From 2005 through 2008, Ojeda Timoneda worked in Honduras where he witnessed the beginning of Operation Miracle, a program designed to provide free eye surgery to those unable to afford it.
He still remembers travelling long distances by river to transport the first group of patients from the country’s Mosquitia region to the airport, as they prepared to travel to Cuba to undergo surgery for cataracts, pterygium, and other visual conditions.
He also recalls an elderly woman who had already undergone surgery and excitedly told him that the trip had been the longest and most rewarding journey of her life, as she had returned with the gift of sight.
From November 2009 through July 2010 Ojeda Timoneda worked in El Salvador, where he offered medical care to flood victims. After setting up their tents in the main square facing the church, they raised the Cuban and Salvadoran flags, which remained there until the brigade departed.
The group arrived just a few days after diplomatic relations were re-established between the two countries, and included young Salvadoran medical graduates from the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana. However, disputes with the Medical College and former government meant that the young students were denied permission to work.
Nonetheless, the recent graduates volunteered to work alongside the Cuban healthcare professionals, as specialists from the island offered their services in the field hospital; while the young medics and an epidemiological team visited communities to survey damage and assess risks and vulnerabilities before undertaking health activities – a plan that allowed the brigade to cover a larger area and help more people.
A moving moment, according to Eduardo, was the day the young ELAM graduates received job placements with El Salvador’s Ministry of Heath, although they continued to work voluntarily on weekends.
He also remembers receiving a distinction from the population and Salvadoran authorities in the plaza where the brigade set up their field hospital, in recognition of the group’s work to combat a dengue epidemic which had broken out in those months.
Tribute was also paid to a Cuban vector technician from Camagüey who had died in the country years earlier. A parallel ceremony was held in Cuba, at the polyclinic where the collaborator worked and attended by family members.
Eduardo also recalled the moment the Cuban ambassador announced the recovery of the Cuban Coat of Arms, which 50 years ago had indicated the island’s diplomatic headquarters, and was preciously guarded from one generation to the next until diplomatic relations were re-established.
Ojeda Timoneda arrived in Brazil in 2014 and remained there through 2017, offering primary healthcare services in Sao Paulo as part of the More Doctors program launched by the government of Dilma Rousseff.
The Cuban doctors were part of Brazil’s unified health system, set up to provide greater medical coverage to the population.
At the end of his mission, Eduardo received a letter that read: “You made a difference; you said that you would say with us for the full three years of your contract, which you did. You always strove to achieve and treat all patients the same. You did not just bring us health, but life. You can return to your homeland with your head held high like a good revolutionary soldier.”
Finally, Dr. Ojeda Timoneda noted, “Every mission is a learning experience, it is confirmation of the dignity of our Revolution, and of one of its defining principles: internationalism. Every time you are chosen to join a medical brigade, the feeling is the same: honor and gratitude for the opportunity to go to other places and show who we Cubans really are: a people who continue working to make a better world possible.”