Things That Matter

Here’s The Little Known History Of How Cuba Took In And Treated Thousands Of Children After The Chernobyl Disaster

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Everyone is talking about “Chernobyl,” the HBO miniseries that retells the apocalyptic nuclear accident in Ukraine and its chilling, bleak aftermath. The TV show is meticulous in its reconstruction of the Soviet Era event, pointing at how the government response tried to keep panic under control. Truth is, the accident was one of the worst the world has ever seen and in the years of the Cold War. It was a catastrophic reminder that even though we might have political and ideological differences, we only have one planet. 

The event happened on April 26, 1985, when the now infamous No. 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near Pripyat in what is now Ukraine, superheated and caused a steam explosion. Radiation was released and the area became uninhabitable. Casualties estimates vary depending on how they are counted: some only count the immediate aftermath of the accident, while others take into consideration the effects that radiation had on life expectancy. As many as 200,000 died, according to Greenpeace. At the time, more than 600,000 civilians and military personnel were drafted to contain the nuclear fallout. 

At the time, as you know (and if you don’t its time to brush up on your contemporary world history), the world was basically divided in three: countries that aligned with the United States, countries that aligned with the Soviet Union and a few non-aligned countries. Among the Soviet Bloc countries, Cuba stood out for its response to the Chernobyl disaster. How? Well, putting to work its team of world-renowned doctors, who treated young Ukrainians affected by the radiation. 

Cuba created a massive health center for the children of Chernobyl after the deadly disaster.

Credit: b065124cef5ae6971e0fd77ff3665214_XL. Digital image. Periodico 26

About 30 kilometers from Havana lay a holiday village that was converted into an enormous facility in which the Castro regime treated children that were affected by radiation poisoning. Most of these kids came from Ukraine, but up until 1992 the program also cared for little ones from Russia and Belarus. Originally Cuba received 139 children, but the number soon increased exponentially.

The number of treated children is impressive and quite shocking.

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As many as 25,000 children (yes, 25,000, a whole small town) were treated between 1990 and 2011, according to Cubadebate. This is a gargantuan effort that needed considerable logistical planning.

The illnesses these kids suffered required medical specialists.

Credit: chevy88uk / Instagram

The kids were mainly treated for cancer, deformations, and muscle atrophy. Among all the things that the revolutionary regime in the island could have done better, its medical training is not one of them. Cuban oncologists and physiotherapists are among the best in the world. Other specialties that were needed: dermatology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.

But why did the Cuban government do this?

Credit: 160413_abc_archive_chernobyl_kidscuba_16x9_992. Digital image. ABC News

Besides being aligned with the former Soviet Union, Cuba follows a principle of internationalism, which is a political principle which goes beyond nationalism and advocates a greater political or economic cooperation among nations and people. Cuban doctors have not only provided aid to these Ukranian children but have also spearheaded relief efforts in countries like Venezuela and Brazil. According to Foreign Affairs, “Cuban health care workers have given aid to 158 nations, and Cuba has trained 38,000 doctors from 121 countries without charge”. Those are really impressive numbers.

Despite tremendous efforts, this was not easy or cheap for Cuba.

Credit: f4b6dca0e2911082f0eb6e1df1a0e11d_XL. Digital image. ACFS Melbourne

The collapse of the Soviet Union, for which Chernobyl holds partial blame, was also a hard blow to Cuba’s economy. All of a sudden, Cuba’s main export customer was gone. Despite this, the Tarara center continued its operations. One Cuban doctor told TeleSUR in 2017: “Although Cuba went through economically difficult times, our state continued to offer specialized treatment to minors, fulfilling a commitment of solidarity”. Dr. Julio Medina, who was the general coordinator of the program, told the official newspaper, Granma: “Many people who are unaware of our ideals still wonder what Cuba might be after. It is simple: we do not give what we have in excess; we share all that we have”. 

Unfortunately, these efforts have been mostly ignored by Western media.

Credit: 040860_360W. Digital image. The New York Times

Despite being a feel-good story amidst the avalanche of bad news that we listen, read and watch every day, this story has been swept under the heavy rug of history, perhaps due to geopolitical reasons. At the time, outlets like The New York Times published information on the matter. With the success of HBO’s show, this has been pointed out. A reader of The Guardian, one Dr. Doreen Weppler-Grogan, wrote a letter stating: 

“No other country in the world launched such a massive programme. The Cubans responded – as ‘an ethical and moral,’ not a political question, as it was put at the time, and the programme continued despite changing governments in the Ukraine.”

“Today, the aftermath persists. Just a few weeks ago, Cuba announced that it will resume the programme in a new facility for the sons and daughters of the victims, who are now showing ailments similar to those of their parents.”

Tarara was a community, not only a big hospital.

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The facilities were adapted to provide a healthy environment for the victims. Besides the medical areas, it included schools, a cooking center, a theater, parks, and recreation areas. In 2005 one of the kids, a 16-year-old girl named Alina Petrusha, told the Sunday Telegraph: “It helps. We sit under the infrared lamp and they put a lotion on our heads. Then we go to the beach.”

Everyone knows how expensive medical treatments are, but for the patients being treated in Tarara, treatment was free.

Credit: Chernobyl / HBO

As reported by The Guardian in 2009, treatment at Tarara was free. Most children were orphans or came from very poor families who could not afford care. Then, the deputy director of the program, Dr. Maria Teresa Oliva, told The Guardian: ” Ukraine now has a capitalist economy and for most of the families these kinds of treatments are very costly. Here, thanks to the revolution, we can provide everything for free”. In 2009, Natalia Kisilova, mother of Mikhail Kisilov, a 15-year-old boy who was born with one outer ear and auditory canal missing, told Noticias Financieras: ‘In my country, the treatment that my son receives would cost 80,000 euros (105,362 dollars)”. This would have been unaffordable, to say the least.

The program survived due to Ukraine-Cuba collaboration.

Credit: lh91_uk / Instagram

It is estimated that Cuba spent $300 million USD a year in the program. By 2009  Ukraine covered transportation, while room, board, schooling, and medical services were covered by the Cuban government. In 2011 Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovich visited the center alongside then Cuban President Raul Castro. A year earlier the Ukranian Foreign Minister Konstantin Grishenko said: “We will never forget what Cuba has done for us.”

You can watch this documentary to get the full story.

Credit: Chernobil en nosotros / Television Cubana

There is a 50-minute documentary that tells the story of the medical program at Tarara. Doctors talk about the effects of radiation in an approachable, if chilling, way. You can watch the documentary with English subtitles here

You can also watch this footage from AP about the program in Cuba for Chernobyl children.

Have you seen HBO’s “Chernobyl”?

READ: Here’s How Cuba’s Tumultuous History Forced A Cuban Diaspora That Changed The World

This Argentine Doctor Saved Millions Of Lives With A Groundbreaking Surgery And Now He Has His Own Google Doodle

Culture

This Argentine Doctor Saved Millions Of Lives With A Groundbreaking Surgery And Now He Has His Own Google Doodle

Google

Google has become well known for it’s regularly tributed to some of the most famed people in history. Unsurprisingly, Latinos make up a massive bundle of Google’s over 900 doodles.

And today, Google is honoring an Argentine doctor who contributed one of the most commonly used medical procedures to the world – saving millions of lives in the process.

The legacy of Argentine surgeon Rene Favaloro is being remembered by a Google Doodle today on what would have been his 96th birthday.

Credit: @CleClinicNews / Twitter

René Favaloro, a pioneering Argentine heart surgeon, is being remembered with a Google Doodle for his contributions to coronary bypass surgery on what would have been his 96th birthday.

Born in La Plata, Argentina, in 1923, Favaloro started his career as a doctor in the farming community of Jacinto Arauz, where he built his own operating room, trained nurses and set up a local blood bank.

In 1962 he moved to the United States where he pioneered coronary bypass surgery, a technique used to restore blood flow to the heart when the vessel supplying it is blocked.

René Favaloro was a pioneer in cardiac surgery and his discovery has saved countless lives.

Credit: @American_Heart / Twitter

Favaloro developed a method using a vein from the leg, implanting it to bypass the blockage in the coronary artery. He performed the first operation of this kind on a 51 year-old woman at the Cleveland Clinic in 1967. The historic operation was a success and the procedure has saved countless lives since then.

Today, coronary artery bypass surgery is one of the most common operations. Doctors performed 213,700 in the U.S. in 2011.

But who was René Favaloro?

Credit: @newscientist / Twitter

Rene Favaloro was born in 1923 in La Plata, Argentina and went on to earn a degree in medicine from the National University of La Plata in 1948.

He worked as a doctor in his home country for a time before moving to the US to study thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at the Cleveland Clinic

Favaloro returned to Argentina in 1972, where he would later found his own medical institution, the Favaloro Foundation.

While Favaloro himself was reluctant to be known as the “father” of coronary bypass surgery, his work played a fundamental role in introducing the procedure into the clinical arena.

Of his legacy, Favaloro wrote: “’We’ is more important than ‘I.’ In medicine, the advances are always the result of many efforts accumulated over the years.”

Today, the Favaloro Foundation serves patients based on their medical needs rather than their ability to pay and tecaches Dr Favaloro’s innovative techniques to doctors all over Latin America.

Sadly, his clinic pushed him into debt and he took his own life in 2000.

Credit: @Bravp_MD / Twitter

He took his own life on July 29, 2000 at the age of 77. The day before his death he sent a letter to then-Argentine President Fernando de la Rúa (who died three days ago) asking him for help to secure funding for his foundation, which had become mired in debt as a result of a national economic crisis.

Many took to Twitter to share in their Argentine pride.

Credit: @CleClinicNews / Twitter

Many were excited to see such an important Argentine figure getting global recognition for this contributions to the world.

While other doctors expressed how much they owe to Dr. Favaloro.

Credit: @TIME / Twitter

Without the work of Dr. Favaloro, many doctors pointed out that we could be living in a world where there are a lot more preventable deaths because of heart disease.

READ: 25 Times Latinos Have Graced The Google Doodle

Some People Don’t Believe The Cuban Government Is Being Honest About The Number Of People Living To 100

Culture

Some People Don’t Believe The Cuban Government Is Being Honest About The Number Of People Living To 100

Alexander Kunze / Unsplash

Longevity is both the question and the answer to experts seeking to understand communities that live longer than average. In the U.S., wealth is often more correlated to health, with greater access to both healthcare and self-care. Cuba, however, is not a wealthy country. With the average monthly income being publicly listed as $30 per month, experts are puzzled as to why there are 2,070 Cubans living over 100 years old on the island.

Like many other communities of centenarians, experts suspect a strong family system is a key to a long life. Other experts suspect Cuba is lying.

The data on thousands of people living to 100 is released by Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health.

@AFP / Twitter

The data itself is based on the first quarter of 2017, which showed that more than 1,200 of the centenarians were women. According to the communist nation, 19.8 percent of its people are 60 years and older.

“Centennials now represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the population, with very special socioeconomic and health implications,” Dr. Alberto Fernández Seco, director of the Ministry’s Department of the Older Adult, Social Assistance and Mental Health told Juventud Rebelde.

Dr. Fernández Seco credits Cuba’s free healthcare for the success of its citizens.

“Health care is free in Cuba, a country with has an average life expectancy of 79.5 years. Photo: AFP” Digital Image. AFP. 2 July 2019.

What’s more is that Dr. Fernández Seco says the population isn’t demented, disabled or heavily dependent. The majority of those 100 years and older live with their family.

Rigoberta Santovenia, 102, credits her family for her ripe age.

“Rigoberta Santovenia, 102, at her home in Havana. Photo: AFP” Digital Image. AFP. 2 July 2019.

She lives with her 68-year-old daughter, Regla, who takes care of her. “I’m very family oriented — I love my children, my grandchildren, my six great-grandchildren. I’ve never been alone,” she said.

Regla is convinced her mom will make it to the “120 Club.”

“Rigoberta Santovenia, 102, reads a newspaper at her house in Havana. Photo: AFP” Digital Image. AFP. 2 July 2019.

In 2003, Fidel Castro’s personal doctor, Eugenio Selman-Housein, created the “120 Club,” which is promoted to this day. Dr. Raul Rodriguez, President of the “120 Club” maintains that “biologically, it has been proven that humans can live for 120 to 125 years.”

Regla thinks her mother was born to live to 120 years old. “Her great-grandmother was a slave. Slave blood seems to be stronger — that’s why she’s kept going so long,” Regla said. Rigoberta continues to read the newspaper every day without reading glasses.

Delia Barrios, 102, also says that it’s her family that keeps her going.

“Delia Barroso, 102, blows out the candles on her birthday cake at a party in Havana. Photo: AFP” Digital Image. AFP. 2 July 2019.

“I don’t feel like I’m this old. I have a family … that loves me a lot. That helps me to feel good,” she said. Barrios uses a motorized wheelchair–one that her great-granddaughter Patricia likes to join for the ride.

When Barrios was 60 years old, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and moved to the U.S.

“Delia Barroso (left) receives a present at her 102nd birthday party in Havana. Photo: AFP” Digital Image. AFP. 2 July 2019.

Twenty years later, she moved back to Cuba so she could be cared for by family. She lives with her granddaughter, Yumi, 59. Barrios says she spent her youth dancing, drinking, and smoking.

Plus, like most of our abuelas, she’s still dressed for success.

@newsroll / Twitter

For Cubans, reaching 100 isn’t the goal. They want to join the “120 Club,” and to live as you’ve still got two decades ahead of you, once you’ve reached 100 years old, certainly offers motivation.

Some experts, however, think Cuba is smudging the numbers for propaganda’s sake.

@EmbassyofRussia / Twitter

Robert Young, an expert with the U.S. Gerontology Research Group, does acknowledge the family support system as a significant factor. “We see that in Japan, too,” he says. On the other hand, he thinks the numbers are meant to propel “a myth that’s used for ideologic propaganda purposes.”

The methods of manipulation are shocking.

@AFP / Twitter

An expert on the matter for Cuba, specifically, Vincent Geloso, says that Cuban doctors “have targets to reach or they’re punished.” Geloso references a similar government’s strategy–the Soviet Union used to record infant deaths as miscarriages to keep down mortality rates.

Regardless, Cuba’s life expectancy relative to revenue is truly remarkable.

@ANTICONQUISTA / Twitter

It doesn’t add up to other countries. Experts have a range of theories ranging from the low rate of car ownership and resultant accident deaths to even the 1990’s food rationing that kept diabetes rates down while other countries’ skyrocketed.

Whatever the case may be, many feliz cumple’s a Cuba.

READ: A Brazilian Social Security Worker May Have Discovered the Oldest Living Person Ever

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