Most people buy souvenirs when they visit abroad. Biloxi plastic surgeon Michael Diaz instead brought duffel bags full of goodies on his second trip to Cuba this year and returned with a commitment from Cuba’s top doctor to speak at Louisiana State University in the fall.
“I think that was a huge success of this trip,” Diaz said after Rodrigo Alvarez Cambras, director of Frank Pais Orthopedic Hospital in Cuba, accepted the invitation to LSU to speak about his life.
Diaz said he believes this is one of the first open medical exchanges between the United States and Cuba in 60 years.
On his first visit to Cuba this spring, Diaz visited relatives he’d never met and learned Band-Aids and over-the-counter pain relief are in very short supply in Cuba because of the American embargo.
He vowed to return. Two months later, he and other South Mississippi doctors stuffed three large duffel bags with supplies American physicians take for granted – surgical tape, catheters, aspirin and other medicines.
“Basics,” said Diaz’s father, Albert Diaz, an OB/GYN who accompanied his son on the trip along with gastroenterologist Darrell Finlay. With them was Bobby Carter, director of community development at Golden Nugget Casino Biloxi who made his 11th trip to Cuba. He’d taken Michael Diaz, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage and Palace Casino general manager Keith Crosby with him in April.
The doctors went knowing there was a sensitive balance to uphold — this was not charity, but an exchange of cultural of medical ideas.
“We’re sharing,” Albert Diaz said of the position with Cuba. “We’re learning from each other.”
Bags were packed
The supplies were primarily things that would have been discarded at U.S. hospitals. “All medical supplies in the U.S. are dated but that does not mean they aren’t good,” he said. “Even the soap we use in the hospital is dated.”
Finlay recounted a Cuban physician’s reaction as he held one of the bags containing four rolls of surgical tape.
“He was crying,” Finlay said. “I was choking up.” The Cuban doctor earns $48 a month and one roll of tape costs $7. The doctor’s wife is on kidney dialysis and the inferior tape he uses pulls her skin and makes her bleed.
Despite the embargo and shortages of medical supplies, Cuba has built a huge infrastructure of medical schools, physicians and facilities that treat people from around the world.
Alvarez built the largest orthopedic-only hospital in the world in Cuba during Fidel Castro’s rule — a complex with separate hospital rooms, hotels and restaurants that cater to medical tourists from Canada, Europe and other places, although not the United States.
“He’s going to come and talk about how he did this,” Michael Diaz said.
As physician to Castro and Saddam Hussein, Alvarez has many stories to tell.
He once treated a woman who was told at a major U.S. hospital her leg would need to be amputated.
The woman’s husband is the head of an automobile-assembly plant in Mexico and Finlay said, “They came to (Alvarez) as a last-ditch effort to save her leg.”
Alvarez did, and she shipped three new cars to him in gratitude, the doctors said. She also returned, Carter said, and asked Alvarez to dance.
US could learn from Cuba
“We are not the end-all of knowledge,” said Albert Diaz, who visited Cuba as a child with his father.
The recent lifting of U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba is creating opportunities for both countries.
“I’ve been wanting to go to Cuba for about 20 years,” said Finlay, a huge fan of author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in a home outside Havana for 20 years.
Finlay saw the recent article in the Sun Herald about Carter and Diaz visiting Cuba and asked to go on the next trip.
Finlay was most impressed with “the genuine, overall good nature of the Cuban people. They have such big hearts,” he said. They don’t have much, he said. “What they have they’re more than willing to share with you.”
Alfred Diaz visited family he hadn’t seen since he was a child. When he was reunited with his cousin he hadn’t seen since 1957, “I couldn’t talk. Turns out he couldn’t talk either because we were both crying,” he said. “I was able to see the place where my father was born. I found the place I played as a young boy.”
Carter said the first time he visited Cuba to fish with a man from ESPN, he was one of the only Americans there.
“And all I wanted to do was go fishing down there,” he said. “Each time I go I meet more people and it seems to open more doors.”
Carter hopes these goodwill trips will one day result in the Cuban national baseball team playing at MGM Park in Biloxi. Last time, he presented Tony Castro, Fidel Castro’s son and vice president of Cuba’s baseball federation, with souvenirs from the Gulf Coast Billfish Tournament at Golden Nugget Casino. This time, he brought along a box of golf balls and a framed photo of Castro’s visit with Gossage.
Boycott hurts Cuban people
Everyone Carter takes to Cuba agrees the U.S. embargo needs to be lifted, he said.
“We don’t have anything in this fight anymore,” Finlay said, but he also doesn’t want to see Cuba Americanized.
“I don’t want to come back in three years and see Starbucks on every corner,” he said.