How Cuba Saved My Life

It was December 2008, and like an estimated 46 million other Americans, I was without health insurance. On New Year’s Eve I suddenly developed heart palpitations, vertigo, tremors, pins and needles, burning spots all over my body, slurred speech, crying spells and severe drops in blood pressure upon standing. I rushed to the emergency room, thinking I was having a heart attack.

The ER doctor sent me to a cardiologist, who referred me to a neurologist, but by then I’d run up close to $5,000 in medical bills. One neurologist refused to see me because I lacked insurance. Another rushed through my appointments as though he had something much more important to do and was ultimately unable to pinpoint the cause of my illness. He told me I had “idiopathic neuropathy,” and then added with a laugh, “That’s a doctor’s way of saying we’re idiots and don’t know what’s wrong with you.” Then, in spite of my already low blood pressure, a cardiologist prescribed me a beta blocker to lessen the feel of the palpitations. But the drugs made me sicker, and I needed more tests to unearth the cause of my distress—only I couldn’t afford them. Terrified, I phoned my father in tears: “What do I do?”

An academic and a Cuban exile, my father has led tours to Cuba for decades, but he has never asked the government for anything, professional distance being crucial to his work. But faced with my worsening illness, he decided to ask the Cuban government for help. Within a matter of days, we heard back from Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón. He said his country was happy to assist us.A couple of weeks later, I checked into the high-rise Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital, next to the sea in the heart of Old Havana. Not so ironically, the building was once a bank.

The room was modern and clean, and I had two roommates: Teresita, a petite, feisty cubana in her 50s, and Lisette, a young, soft-spoken medical student from Peru. We had a TV that aired U.S. cable movie channels. I got three meals a day in a beautiful dining room, plus a midday snack and toiletries—all for free, for as long as I needed. And yes, this was the same treatment everyone else got.

Specialists in varying fields examined me all at once and openly debated the possible causes of my illness, with typical Cuban fervor. My roommates were also present for these examinations and they, too, had opinions and questions. My stress test was held in full view of two dozen patients and their families, with five cardiologists educating the public as I pedaled an ancient stationary bike held together with duct tape.

My primary care doctor was a young black woman named Aida Iris, with intelligent, beautiful eyes covered in sparkly gold shadow. She wore tight jeans and high heels. Aida checked on me day and night. She hugged me, held my hand and got to know me as a human being. This whole-person approach is the key to Cuba being one of the healthiest nations in Latin America. In Cuba, health care, like everything else, is a communal experience.

In the end, I was relieved to discover that most of my problems were benign. The Cubans said the medicines my American doctors had given me were unnecessary and instead gave me two new prescriptions: one for meditation and another for exercise. Stress, they said, was killing me in America. Stress caused, in part, by the terrible health-care system in the United States.

Cuba is far from perfect. I was disturbed by the strict controls the nation imposes on the press, and I met many people who were frustrated by their lack of basic freedoms. But you have to wonder what the value of freedom is if you must live in fear of being bankrupted by an illness or, worse, die because you can’t afford to get well. If a small island nation of limited means can provide high-quality universal health care—and offer it to foreigners!—then there is no excuse for the United States not to do the same. No excuse, that is, other than corporate greed and political complicity.

The latest novel from Valdes-Rodriguez, The Husband Habit, is now on sale ($25, St. Martin’s Press).