It was 2007, and I was sick. I was 36 years old. Until then, I'd been healthy. A fitness instructor. Organic-food buyer. Water-drinker. Runner. Mom.
But suddenly, there was neuropathy - horrible burning sensations on my skin. Rashes made worse by sunlight. Crippling vertigo that left me vomiting nonstop, unable to stand or walk for hours at a time. Bone pains. Spinal problem. Sudden drops in blood pressure when I stood up. Muscle spasms. Declining eyesight, weird bouts of glaucoma. Debilitating headaches. And, scariest of all, severe heart palpitations and arryhthmia that sent me to the emergency room a half dozen times feeling on the verge of death. I was tested for lupus, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, many other illnesses. All negative.
As an author and screenwriter, I had health insurance through the Writer's Guild, but the insurance company insisted all my symptoms were related to some as-yet-undiagnosed "pre-existing condition." They refused to pay for further testing. My symptoms got worse. They got so bad I spent days sobbing in pain. I racked up medical bills I'd never be able to pay, trying to stay alive. The heart monitor a cardiologist had given me to wear indicated I was at risk of dropping dead from disrupted rhythms that no one could explain or treat without further tests I could not afford. I was still sick. No one knew why. And I could not afford to find out. As a single mother and sole breadwinner, this was all beyond terrifying.
One day, as I sobbed on the phone to my dad, he sighed and, after a long silence, made a suggestion that shocked me.
"We need to take you to Cuba," he said.
To understand why this was shocking, you should know that my dad, born in Cuba, fled that nation in 1961, when he was 15 years old, three years after communist leader Fidel Castro came to power. His stepfather made the choice to send him, unaccompanied, to the United States as part of Operation Pedro Pan, rather than let him stay in Cuba and be subjected to the "evils" of socialism. My dad was placed in foster homes in the US, and the government here paid for him to go to a private Catholic high school and college. He became a professor, a husband and a father, and led a successful life in his new country. And while he, as a progressive, has never been a hard-line anti-Castro exile like so many in Miami, he still preferred his US life to any life he'd have in Cuba and, until that moment, he'd never considered that his family might get better medical care as foreigners in a third-world nation than they would as citizens of the richest nation on earth.
Out of choices, I agreed to go. My father called family members we still have in Cuba, and together they began to arrange for me to travel and seek care.
I left my son in the care of his father, and with my own dad, sick as hell, I flew from Albuquerque to Miami, where I boarded AeroSur Flight 6601 to Havana. (Cuban exiles were, at the time, the only group allowed to travel to Cuba from the US, though few chose to do so in protest of Castro's government.)
The flight took less than an hour. Cuba, 85 miles from Florida, came into view, and I felt a mix of hope and fear. I had no idea what to expect.
To my surprise, we were met, at the plane, by a man named Valentin, a representative of the Cuban government. He'd heard that "a famous Cuban American author" was seeking medical care on the island, and wanted to personally welcome me. As we stood waiting for my suitcase in baggage claim, he told me that his wife was also a writer. Turned out she was Aleida March, the widow of Che Guevara, who had written a book about their lives together as revolutionaries. Valentin had married her after the CIA killed Che, and he'd raised Che's children. Maybe it was kindness; maybe it was big brother, watching me. I didn't care. I was ill, maybe dying, and I just wanted help. My own country was content to let me die; hopefully, this one wasn't.
Imagine being a Cuban American author of fashionable "chica lit," by many measures an "enemy" of the Cuban Revolution, given a hero's welcome in this way, in your moment of greatest need. This was beyond surreal, and while I understand my treatment was special at that point because of my status as a writer of Cuban descent, the actual medical care I received from that point forward was exactly the same as what any Cuban citizen would have gotten. The welcome the Cubans gave me reminded me of the way Fidel Castro and Che Guevara used to treat political prisoners during the Revolution; rather than imprison them, they gave them money and education and kindness. That's how you win friends.
Valentin drove me and my father to a high-rise building on the coast, in his beat-up rusty Soviet Lada. The building was the Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras, named for the Ameijeiras brothers who fought in the Cuban Revolution and are considered to be national heroes. Before the Revolution in 1959, this building had been a bank that housed the stock exchange. Before that, it had been a maternity hospital. The socialists turned it BACK into a hospital, the same hospital that treated NYC's 9-11 first responders in Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko" when they were unable to get treatment in the United States.
Valentin left us there, with wishes to get well soon, and my dad and I went to the check-in area. I stood in line in a hallway, with about a dozen other people. When my turn came, I went into an office filled with triage nurses and chairs. It was the first time in my life where the first question I was asked, upon checking in for medical treatment, was not "What kind of insurance do you have?" Instead, the nurse, a beautiful black Cuban woman, held my hand and looked me warmly and kindly in the eye. This was EXACTLY the same treatment everyone else in the room was getting.
"What brings you here today, friend?" she asked me. As I told her my symptoms and my story, she listened intently, intelligently, with great compassion. When I'd finished, she then wrote everything down, checking to see if she had it right. She asked followup questions. And, then, she led me to a shelf and handed me one of the small plastic tubs stacked on it. Inside the tub was a gown, toothpaste, toothbrush, comb, shampoo, soap and a strange electric wand that looked a little bit like a curling iron.
At this point, another nurse came to escort me to my room. No one had asked me for a cent. No one asked me to sign any form promising not to sue, or swearing to pay. Money was never mentioned at all, nor was "health insurance," a concept they might have laughed at.
This new nurse looked over my chart, then hugged me and welcomed me to Cuba.
My room was on the 24th floor, with two big windows overlooking the ocean. There were four beds in the room, one in each corner. There was a bathroom just for the room itself, and a TV mounted high on the wall in one corner. The Starz network was playing, a movie with Liam Neeson, which made it all that much more surreal. There were also four rocking chairs in the room. I was given one of the beds next to the windows. The window had tape crossing it, a precaution for hurricanes. Out the window I could see a monument, the malecon boardwalk, and the sea.
The nurse then showed me the bathroom, and explained that the wand was to be used in the bucket provided there, to heat water for bathing. There was no hot running water in the rooms.
I met my roommate - there was only one at that point. She was a young indigenous woman from rural Peru, who spoke fluent Quechua and accented Spanish; she had some kind of issue with her foot. She explained that she had been scouted by the Cuban government in her village, as the brightest girl there, and offered free university through medical school, for nothing more than a written promise to return to her village in Peru to become the first indigenous doctor ever known there. Cuba, she said, did this with poor indigenous villages all over Latin America.
I settled into my clean, comfortable bed, and within minutes, three doctors and a new nurse came, and all introduced themselves to me. The doctors were a cardiologist, a general practitioner and an autoimmune specialist, two men and one woman. As my medical student roommate listened on, they began to ask me questions about my symptoms. Remarkably, the doctors and nurse debated amongst themselves about what might be causing my symptoms. They openly disagreed, and discussed why. This would never have happened in the United States, where a doctor could be sued out of business for making a mistake. I couldn't believe my eyes and ears. At one point in the conversation, a patient from a neighboring room wandered in, and listened, then offered her own opinion. The doctors and nurse politely listened, and thanked her for her input.
Then, they asked my father to leave the room. They closed the door. And the nurse sat on the bed and held my hands. "Tell me about your life, sweetie," she said. "How are you, emotionally? What's happening with your love life? Your friends? Your career? Tell me everything."
This caring, sincere, holistic, discreet approach dumbfounded me. Within one hour of arriving, I had already seen three specialists, and was having my mind-body connection assessed.
FOR FREE. By a system that was educating poor indigenous people to be doctors all over Latin America.
They invited my dad back in then, and asked if he'd be joining me for dinner in the hospital cafeteria. He said he would, and they gave him a voucher for a free meal. Every family member of every patient is allowed to eat for free at the hospital, it turned out. The doctors also made a point of telling my father their names and inviting him to spend part of dinner with them. They also ate in the cafeteria, the same food as the rest of us. Over dinner, they asked my dad his observations about my health, to get another perspective from a person who lived with me, in case there were changes of symptoms I'd downplayed or didn't notice.
From there, this same team visited me several more times over the course of a week, sometimes in the morning, sometimes at night. They wanted to see how my symptoms changed over the course of the day, and they related any changes to shifts in diet and nutrition. They continued to debate one another, and even brought in other specialists and doctors when they were unsure of something.
They sent me for tests. Many tests. These included an EKG. I'd had EKGs in the States, and so when I arrived in the large basement room with an old stationary bike held together with duct tape in the center of it, I thought I'd misread the form. Nope, this was the place. It was filled with dozens of people, most of them just citizens from the neighborhood who'd come to watch. There was an old man on the bike when I got there, and his results were being shown on a large screen at the front of the room. Two cardiologists stood at the screen with pointers, explaining the results to the crowd. As the man took his test. People raised their hands, like this was a class, and asked questions. The doctors patiently explained, and people offered their thoughts. The man on the bike participated in the conversation.
They wanted me to put a gown on, with hospital pants. I had worn my own clothes. There was nowhere to change, but three nurses lovingly brought me to a corner and held up a sheet so I could change in privacy. People looked away, too. There was a sense of being in this together that I had never felt in US medicine. The room was dank, the equipment old, but the community and love were strong, and the people well-informed.
I began to understand why Cuba, with so much less money than the US, had managed to have a longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality than we did. In the US, medicine is seen as a sort of religion, where the doctor is the high priest. Technicians silently conduct X-rays or ultrasounds or EKGs and are forbidden to share their thoughts on the results, as though only the holy doctor were wise enough to do so. This is nothing but the byproduct of a capitalist higher education system that needs to fool us all into thinking that only those who can afford medical school are able to understand medicine. In Cuba, the sense of equality permeates everything. Medical knowledge is not secreted away and hoarded for profit. It is offered openly and freely to any and all who want it, and their input is seen as valuable because many educated minds pondering the same issue often leads to superior results than the mind of one overworked doctor, who very likely only went into the field to make money.
During the two weeks I stayed at the hospital, I met others who shared the room. A middle-aged mother from a rural part of the island, dying of cancer but still displaying a tremendous sense of humor. Her son, a PhD candidate in mathematics, came to visit every day, and became good friends with my dad. There was an elderly woman who complained that the new house the government built her after the hurricane was slightly smaller than her old house that had been destroyed by it. My dad lifted his brows at me then. "Imagine," he said, "Complaining that your new free house wasn't as big as your old one."
By the time I was discharged, the hospital had correctly diagnosed me as having psoriatic arthritis with complications due to a genetic clotting disorder. PA was attacking my spine and eyes, and it was directly related to my father's visible psoriasis of the skin. The collapsing of my cervical spine (I had the spine of a woman in her 90s, they said, because of the disease, and had lost all curvature of the spine in my neck) was compressing my nerves, leading to the host of heart and other issues I was having. I could take drugs, they said, but I could probably get equal or superior results if I changed my diet and lifestyle. It was an incurable disease, but not without hope. They suggested cutting carbs, doing yoga, meditating, stretching - all of which have helped enormously.
Before we left, I asked that my dad take me to the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway used to write, and he did. I was still sick, but felt good to have a diagnosis, and hope.
I returned home, and began to cure myself. My US doctors insist I need surgery, medication and endless shots of damaging steroids. I refuse them all. Instead, I run in the mountains, meditate and eat a ketogenic diet. The disease still flares up at times, but I'm mostly able to control it without medication for now. Most importantly, I have a diagnosis. Thanks to Cuba. Thanks to socialized medicine. Thanks to socialism itself. Thanks to a cultural approach to medicine that is humane, communal, educational and wholistically focused upon prevention, wellness, and a compassionate care for the whole person and their family.
Last week, as I stood in line at Walmart like everyone else, stocking up for the pandemic quarantine, a Maga man behind me complained that the new ban on plastic bags in Albuquerque was "another socialist trap." I turned to him and pointed out that, under a far-right-wing presidency, we were standing in a store that was out of eggs, meat, toilet paper, bleach, and dozens of other essential products. I told him he had no room under these circumstances to criticize socialism.
"Socialism doesn't work," he said, parroting Fox News. I laughed. Then I shared with him my story of getting free medical care in Cuba, a nation I had observed to be uncommonly humane, civilized, healthy and well-educated.
"If Cuba's so great," he said, "Why don't you just move there?"
It was a good question, honestly. And one I have begun to ask myself every day, as the US sinks deeper and deeper into fascism.
Instead, I asked him this: "What is it people like you say about migrants coming to the US from Mexico and Central America? That they should just stay where they are and fix their own damn countries? Well, this is my own damn country, and I'm a socialist, and I'm staying, so we can fix it. And when we do, we will be happy to hep you live a longer, healthier life, just like the rest of us."