My Mom's Experiences at Havana's "Roach Motel" Hospital
May 29, 2014
HAVANA TIMES — She was sweating buckets. An intense burning sensation in
her chest was making her dizzy. She started to go cold and pale, and her
lips took on that frightening purple tonality. Then, she passed out.
Despite this, when we got to the nearest polyclinic, the doctor on duty
didn't sound her with a stethoscope. We described the symptoms my mother
had just shown. The doctor saw that she had walked into the clinic
looking a little pale, so she said they first had to rule out a
hypoglycemic episode and then anemia. In response to my demands and
restlessness, she would continue chewing her gum and say: "Easy, love,
easy. I know what I have to do."
I felt bound hand and foot. Was I to yell, take my mother somewhere
else, even if it were farther away? It was not the first time I'd had a
delicate situation with the doctors at "my" polyclinic.
Finally, when she was good and ready, she gave my mother an
electrocardiogram and fitted her with an oxygen mask. Immediately, my
mother's face regained its color. More than 40 minutes had already gone
by and only a memory remained of the chest pain. The doctor found no
reason to refer her to a hospital or to admit her to the polyclinic's
emergency ward. What's more, it is impossible to catch anything that
will take you out of Alamar at 3:00 in the morning.
We went home (and barely slept).
Morning found us at the cardiovascular hospital. There, employees smile,
ask how you're doing and are generally kind – from doctors, through
nurses to janitors. I am of course referring to the emergency ward,
where there are the material conditions needed for professionals and
patients to feel comfortable.
There, she had more electrocardiograms and underwent all manner of
(quick) tests. She was then taken to the observations ward.
At the waiting room, it felt strange to be in a hospital that didn't
feel oppressive. With the exception of a number of people who were
worried about the seriousness of a relative's condition, a sense of
A few hours later, a professor of medicine confirmed that my mother
ought to be admitted, particularly because of the syncope she had
experienced the night before. But she had to be admitted at the hospital
in our jurisdiction.
I couldn't help but blurt out: "God, they're going to admit my mother to
the roach motel!"
Yes, we residents of Habana del Este must be admitted to the Calixto
Garcia Clinical, Surgical and Teaching Hospital, popularly known as the
A brief stay at this hospital's emergency ward set the differences
between the two health facilities in starker relief. The permanent
presence of two police officers there reminded me that crime rates in
Havana are not low.
Every so often, someone would burst into the ward yelling: "He's
bleeding to death, he's bleeding to death, I need a stretcher!" First,
we heard the screams of pain of a man with a dislocated tibia. Then came
the heartrending cries of a young woman who learned of her mother's
death. Then, we saw a young man who had been struck on the head with a
machete: he was being held up by the hands while he tried to articulate
words that wouldn't come out of his mouth. Blood everywhere, stretcher
bearers that do not reply promptly to emergencies, loud-mouthed
receptionists, collective hysteria. "Does my mother really need to be
admitted here?" I thought.
The question was beginning to torment me when the doctor on duty came
out to speak to relatives about emergency cases. The first feeling was
relief: he believed there was nothing seriously wrong with my mother and
that there was no reason to admit her. "We're leaving!" I thought. Then
I began to think that they were basing their diagnosis on how well she
looked and downplaying the importance of what she experienced. The image
of her deathly paleness came back to me.
"What if it happens again?" I thought.
Since she had arrived at the hospital referred from another hospital
(the Cardiovascular Hospital), we had to wait for a specialist to
examine her and confirm whether she was fit to go back home or not.
Nearly two hours later, a cardiologist examined her and discovered some
problems in the results of the electrocardiogram from the previous night.
So what happened? Exactly what you're imagining: we had to stay in the
After decades of neglect, a slow, long-overdue restoration process is
underway at the more than 100-year-old Calixto. The dilapidated halls
are still there but, generally speaking, and in spite of the
constructive mess it is in, the hospital is trying to put behind its
reputation as a filthy, neglected place where cockroaches thrive
unchecked, a reputation that has accompanied it for far too long. I
can't say it will manage to do so with any certainty. What I can say is
that my mother received quality attention at the intensive and
intermediate therapy ward.
Though located in Havana's residential neighborhood of Vedado, the
Calixto is a place frequented by humble patients, common folk who can't
afford medical services in hard currency and do not have friends in high
places who can arrange these for them – hence the hustle-and-bustle of
its emergency ward.
The hospital is not only known for its dilapidated state and its bugs.
Its health professionals are also glorified by people.
The remodeling of the ward and purchase of new, quality equipment will
likely make doctors, nurses and others at the coronary ward – in
addition to highly knowledgeable and eager to continue learning – more
affable and solicitous.
For an entire week, we saw them work, treat everyone equally and carry
out their duties diligently despite the low wages they earn. It didn't
strike us as the kind of emotional blackmail that says: "I'm giving you
a royal treatment so that you'll pay me something later."
In short, everyone was carrying out their duties and treating others
well – the way things should always be but rarely are. They even held a
meeting aimed at hearing the opinions patients and relatives had about
the treatment they had receiving from doctors and their work in general.
I don't know whether it was mere coincidence or if such meetings are
held every so often, but, accustomed as people are to seeing their
comments at meetings go nowhere, very few people expressed their opinions.
The coronary ward isn't free from the shortcomings of the notorious
hospital. Even though it was recently repaired, it has a number of
deficiencies. As we all know, intensive care patients should not get out
of bed, not even to urinate. However, there are no screens or room
dividers in the ward so that patients can satisfy their physiological
needs privately. I had to work miracles to scrub my mother's body clean
while keeping the man in the bed across from her from seeing her breasts.
I consider it dangerous that street venders come into the wards where
patients in intermediate care are. Most of the time, they offer products
that these patients should not eat.
The TV isn't working. According to one of the doctors, patients and
their relatives do not look after the ward and some even steal things
like the remote control and bathroom fixtures. Since the television is
propped up high on the wall, they started using a stick to press the on
button…until they broke a hole through the TV. These practices may also
explain why the shower in the ward my mother was in could never be shut
off. It was painful watching the water pour out ceaselessly, what with
the many families in Havana who suffer a shortage of water.
It is pointless to lay the blame on patients and their relatives and
forget about the theft of resources by hospital employees – at this
stage, all of that is secondary. If it continues to accumulate problems,
the Calixto, despite its qualified professionals, will continue to be
Havana's "roach motel."
Source: My Mom's Experiences at Havana's "Roach Motel" Hospital - Havana
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