MATANZAS, Cuba – The tree was a gorgeous tree, gnarled with intertwined branches. It invited me to climb up and take a better look at the Caribbean bay below. I and 15 other students from Methodist Theological Seminary were visiting a Presbyterian Seminary in Cuba as part of a cultural immersion class.
I never imagined that my climbing adventure would land me broken on the ground. As I told my fellow students who scurried to my side, I was fine. I had to be fine. It turns out that two little hairline fractures in my lower vertebrae caused a large amount of pain. I soon found myself in a Cuban ambulance whisking me on a unique cultural journey at a local hospital in Matanzas.
Hospitals can be intimidating no matter where they are located. As I approached the Matanzas hospital, I was terrified about what might lie ahead. I knew that I could no longer control my situation. So I focused on what I could control by struggling to speak and understand the Spanish of my non-English speaking doctors and nurses.
Even though I laid on the gurney in the ambulance shaking from the on-setting shock, I used my best Spanish to ask my EMT what music he liked. Turns out romantic ballads were his favorite.
Reinier Menendez, our group’s Cuban guide, later admitted he was amazed that a traumatic accident could make me suddenly “fluent.” My attempt at language was an illusion of control I clung to with wild abandon. I made another effort to regain control when I started using that language to ask questions.
Reinier cringed as I asked directly worded questions, in true American style, such as how many years my doctor had been practicing medicine. In Cuban culture, such abrupt questions were seen as rude. I was reminded many times that we needed to trust the medical professionals.
My pathetic attempts at controlling the situation did not amount to much. In truth, my life was no longer my own. In the coming days I would be tested, prodded, poked, injected, carried, flipped, stripped, medicated and plastered. I also found myself humbled to receive care from nearly everyone in my immersion class.
The first night, Methodist Theological Seminary Professor Linda Mercadante was spoon feeding me spaghetti, because I was not allowed to sit up. Our group leader, Dr. Ann Lutterman-Aquilar, as well as our translator, Betsy Gonzalez Alvarez, took turns staying with me in the tiny hospital room. Ann hunted up the bed pan for me more times than I care to remember.
As I laid on the gurney in pain, Alex Throckmorton, a friend from the class, stayed by my side the entire first day to help look out for me. Everyone in the class prayed for me and helped me travel home. There was no denying that I was no longer an independent woman. Unfortunately, it took falling from a tree to realize how much I needed others.
Cubans have a very pervasive sense of community. For example, my hospital room was incredibly bare bones. We had to bring our own toilet paper, and there was no seat on the toilet. Periodically the water stopped working. My hospital gown and sheets were clean, but stained from previous users. One window was broken. Of course, there was no television or any electronic machines one might see at an American hospital.
My I.V. hanger was nothing more than a hook, and any additions to my I.V. were “charted” on the tape of my hand with ball point pen. When the nurse took my temperature, I saw a mercury thermometer for the first time in 20 years. Yet, in this meager room there were still two, simple, hospital beds. The reason for the second bed was to accommodate family. In Cuba, family members stay and help care for their loved ones. There is no need for nurse call buttons. It is expected that family members will go get the nurse if he/she is needed.
When I was receiving x-rays and tests, I had three-to-five members of my group wheeling my gurney from place to place. Not once did anyone at the hospital question their presence with me. Family was an important and necessary part of the healing process.
On the other hand, I heard from my nurses that in the neighboring room there was a Russian woman who also broke her back falling off a balcony. Her break was worse than mine, yet it was not her injury which the nurses pitied. The Russian woman was alone. No one stayed with her or helped care for her. Broken bones were unfortunate, however being alone was tragic.
I was fortunate. I had 17 people praying for me, along with the entire Presbyterian Seminary of Matanzas. I had from one-to-five people at my bedside at all times. Every single one of these people had been practically strangers weeks earlier, and were now family.
When I think of those difficult, painful, days in the hospital, I smile to think of that love. I discovered firsthand, my broken hospital window was handy for letting the sun shine in. In my brokenness, I discovered the joy of accepting the love and community of others. That gorgeous tree in Cuba has left me forever changed, and for that I am grateful.
Adriane Curtis is pastor of Cambridge City United Methodist Church in the East District.