1998 NCC News Archives

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Gloves and More
"For the Children! For the Children!" Cuban Doctor Says
As She Unpacks NCC/CWS Delivery of Medical Supplies

News/Feature About the NCC/CWS Delegation Visit to Cuba May 30-June 2

HAVANA, Cuba, May 30, 1998 – As she unpacked the tiny oxygen masks and other medical equipment made for use with children, a doctor at the Antonio Guiteras Holmes Polyclinic in Old Havana cried tears of joy.  "For the children!," marveled Dr. Maria de los Angeles Marines, the clinic’s director of emergency services. "For the children!"

Church World Service, the humanitarian aid ministry of the National Council of Churches, had promised this and other equipment to the Cuban Council of Churches for the woefully understocked emergency clinic during visits in December and February.

On May 30, NCC General Secretary Joan Campbell, who had taken part in the December visit, and several ecumenical and denominational colleagues from the United States and Cuba were present to fulfill the promise.

They lent a hand as the clinic’s staff inspected the newly arrived medical equipment and supplies, donated by two California Rotary Clubs in collaboration with Direct Relief International and shipped by NCC/CWS and UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief). (See sidebar, below.)

There were drainage and suction pumps, wheelchairs, x-ray cassettes, a crash cart, a defibrillator, lead aprons, an oxygen regulator, an EKG machine, bandages, surgical and exam gloves, sutures, thermometers, scalpels, needles, insulin, and much more – 3,000 pounds of equipment in all.

The goods arrived none too soon. Commented Dr. Marta Salgado, the clinic’s director, the clinic was down to its last eight pairs of gloves, which staff were doing their best to hold together with tape.

The staff’s relief and joy were tempered by the realization that, tragically, a baby who had died of asthma the previous week could have been saved by the breathing equipment that arrived in the shipment.

NCC/CWS is targeting several shipments to this busy clinic, which sees 5,000 emergency cases every month. Set among the once elegant, now crumbling apartment buildings in the oldest part of Havana, it helps take pressure off area hospitals, but is frustrated by the difficulty of getting equipment, medicine and supplies under the embargo.

Dr. Campbell said she was as moved by the ingenuity of the doctors and nurses in coping with severe shortages as she was by the shortages themselves.

"Every time we visit," she said, "we are impressed with the skill, commitment and compassion of the doctors and nurses, who do so much with their specially tuned clinical diagnostic skills."

The clinic’s pharmacy includes 30-40 "natural medicines" that staff said they plan to keep using in any event, but is short of most others, including the most basic antibiotics.

"We can only do as well as we do because of the medical knowledge and technical abilities of our doctors and nurses," said Dr. Salgado, a warm, energetic woman with twinkling eyes and a ready hug for her visitors. "We work in very difficult circumstances, with few things."

Dr. Campbell affirmed that "we see that the Cuban people have the skill and knowledge, but they need the embargo lifted so they can have access to the food and medicine that are needed." The NCC and its member communions, along with other groups, have called repeatedly for the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

After inspecting the shipment, Dr. Salgado led the ecumenical visitors in a tour of the building. She commented that trying to keep the ancient equipment functioning was "like taking care of a fragile old lady."

For example, the x-ray machine – one of only two available in a district with 100,000 inhabitants – is so old that it is used "only in extreme emergency," she said. Clinic staff call it the ‘United Nations’ x-ray machine because, to keep it in use, they have combined pieces and parts from other equipment coming from various countries around the world.

CWS has promised a new machine, and this summer j—as soon as direct flights become available -- will be forwarding 21 pallets of gloves, syringes and other disposables donated by the Ohio Medical Center.

Church World Service’s assistance to this polyclinic represents a new phase in its aid to Cuba. Over the past six years, CWS has responded to specific requests for help from the Cuban Council of Churches with 42 shipments of food, medicine, medical equipment, school supplies and other goods valued at $10 million. CWS assistance is targeted to the most vulnerable members of Cuban society – women, children and the elderly.

General assistance will continue, but CWS now also is targeting specific clinics and hospitals to help equip them for their work. CWS is working with the Cuban Council of Churches to identify a second hospital for such assistance.

Contact: NCC News Department

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