Tag Archives: Cuban aid

Alejandro, America, Winter, Christmas, and Our Hospitals

by Marc Bohland, Executive Director, First-Hand Aid

Alejandro (without crutches!) says, "Feliz Navidad" to all his friends.

Alejandro (without crutches!) says, “Feliz Navidad” to everyone.

Alejandro is now five weeks out of the hospital. Certainly, he has progressed more than we had ever anticipated. He is still walking on crutches because we do not want all his weight put on his healing leg yet. This is not normal for a hip patient, but he had not walked for 16 months before the operation, so his bone density is not strong enough to take his weight.

The greatest story I can tell you about his operation is that after not walking for 17 months I watched the physical therapists at St. Mary’s come into the room two hours after his operation and tell him to get up to walk. I listened to him calmly explain in Spanish that he had just had an operation and they must not know that he could not walk. They looked at him, smiled, and said, “We know. Now get up.” He was amazed. To see the smile on his face was indeed incredible. He cannot and will not stop singing the praises of our medical system.

A few days ago I walked into our family room to see him sitting facing the window, watching snow fall. He was amazed. Then he was not so thrilled when we went outdoors and felt the cold. Imagine seeing snow for the first time in 34 years. He is wonderfully refreshing to watch as he explores the United States and the North, just like a child just growing up to an entirely different world.

At times I actually find myself apologizing to him this Christmas season for the many things he sees in abundance that people do not have in Cuba. He has visited both of the larger malls in our area, and he stares in disbelief at all the stores and decorations.

We visited Frederik Meijer Gardens to see the Christmas display of trees from around the world. He pointed to a small, slightly sparse tree without lights or ornaments outside the window of the gardens, and joked, “Look! There is the tree from Cuba without anything.” We all laughed, because it is easier than crying about the truth.

The truth is that in less than four weeks I must send him back to Cuba, after eight weeks living like an American. We have given a great gift, the ability to walk again. We also have shown him the truth about our two countries and their stark differences.

If anything, I know how much I appreciate what I have, what we have. And I hope and pray that the gift we have given him is enough to wipe out the memory of what he does not have.

Thank you for all of your support and encouragement.


You Have Given a Person A New Life

By Marc Bohland, Executive Director, First-Hand Aid

As Alejandro recovers, I am most grateful this Thanksgiving for the group of people listed below who are instrumental in helping him walk again. Your gifts have given a person new life. I hope you and your families have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Dr. Kevin Kane, MD (River Valley Orthopedics) – Your  skills as a surgeon are incredibly awesome, and so are your bedside manner and kindness with patients.

Dr. Kyle Rasikas, MD (Grand Valley Medical Specialists) –  You made a patient comfortable after only 24 hours in this country while at the same time assessing him for surgery.

Dr. Ron Hoekman, MD (Independent orthopedic surgeon) – Without your coordination and support from day one this would not have been possible.

Phillip McCorkle (St. Mary’s CEO) – Your staff was absolutely incredible and kind, and that is a direct reflection of the man who steers the helm. This community will truly miss you when you retire.

Kent Riddle (Mary Free Bed CEO) – I have long been an admirer of Mary Free Bed. You bring hope to patients and give them a future. Again, you’re a man whose staff directly reflects your leadership.

Pat Hoekman (Dr. Ron’s wife and dedicated FHA volunteer) –  You are one of the most giving people I know, and you support this effort without hesitation.

Joe Corretti (Zimmer Great Lakes Medical Devices) – You and your company stepped up to the plate from day one. You are a generous man.

Cia Marion (Manager, AmeriCares)– Thank you for your gift and support during many changes of schedules, etc. I know you must get many requests and I am thankful for your generosity.

He is Here, He is Walking, and the World Seems Perfect

By Marc Bohland, Executive Director, First-Hand Aid

I stood on the first floor of Mary Free Bed speaking with Dr. Ron Hoekman and his wife Pat along with an American Cuban named Carlos. We talked about Cuba in general and all of the memories we have, good and bad.

As we spoke, Alejandro and his therapist came around the corner. Alejandro was walking on crutches to support his weight, but with both feet on the floor. A miracle. It had been only three days after having a total hip prosthesis surgery. He had not walked on both feet for 16 months, since the day of that accident. It seemed incredibly wonderful to watch him and his therapist. A huge smile was on his face.

It seemed healing for me as well as him. We had spent the last nine months struggling to get him to the United States. At times I felt as if we should give up the battle; I am glad that we endured. It is not an easy task to bring a Cuban patient here for any kind of treatment, let alone an operation of this magnitude.

The first step was the application to the United States, an invitation of sorts both requesting and inviting the patient here. The U.S. happened to lose our paperwork in the process of changing computer systems at the American Interest Section. After many inquires and phone calls it was apparently going nowhere.

I went to Havana at the end of June, and with the help of our organization’s consultant, we called and made an appointment the next day at the American Interest section. The experience of entering an American facility in Cuba could be a story in itself. Once there, they apologized for computer problem and promised they would expedite the process for Alejandro’s interview, which soon took place.

Just five weeks later Alejandro received a visa to enter the United States for medical treatment. Amazing. In the meantime, all had to be secured here: a surgeon, a hospital, an internal med doctor, a rehab hospital, and a few other things. These turned out to be the easy things to secure. Grand Rapids, Michigan, is truly filled with charitable, giving people. Gracious and giving.

This step was followed by much frustration trying to get Alejandro’s exit permit as Cuba decided how to proceed. All the while Alejandro was deteriorating and in pain.

Finally, after changing surgery schedules many times and frustrating phone calls, his papers arrived. He could leave Cuba. So without hesitation we scheduled flights, and I went down to Miami to get him. Now he stands before me smiling, walking, even joyful. The previous nine months of frustration, waiting, and hoping have vanished. He is here, he is walking, and the world seems perfect.

Alejandro is Now Rehabbing at Mary Free Bed

Alejandro was visited by Dr. Ron Hoekman, MD at St. Mary’s shortly after surgery. Dr.Hoekman leads the mission board at Westminster Presbyterian Church, which helped make this happen. He retired a few years ago but scrubbed with the team and oversaw the surgery.

We’re happy to report that Alejandro, complete with his new titanium hip, is settled in at Mary Free Bed in Grand Rapids and begins rehab today. Mary Free Bed is one of the best rehab hospitals in the country, so we know he’s in great hands.

Alejandro, an ambulance driver back home in Guines, Cuba, has been unable to walk for 14 months after a freak sidewalk accident that resulted in his broken hip. “I had pain every day, all day,” he said from his room at Mary Free Bed. “It’s wonderful and incredible to be here for this surgery so I can do everything again.”

Alejandro and Marc Bohland, First-Hand Aid executive director, at Mary Free Bed. “Alejandro has an amazing attitude,” says Marc. “He’s always smiling and making jokes throughout this experience.”

He has been able to communicate with his wife Maria and 11-year-old son Alejandrito via email while in Grand Rapids, and he’s looking forward to returning to them as soon as he can.

Welcome to Grand Rapids, Alejandro! You Made it!

Alejandro gets bundled up at Ford International.

The first step in Alejandro’s journey to walk again is complete. He arrived safely in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on November 12 from Havana via Miami.

November 15 is another big day for Alejandro. He’s had his preliminary tests and will enter the operating room at St. Mary’s Hospital, where he will be given a new hip. St. Mary’s is donating the surgery to Alejandro–an incredibly generous gift that is an expression of St. Mary’s core values.

After a couple days of recovery, he will go to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital for therapy.

Alejandro needs the new hip to walk again after a serious fall, but he could never have obtained the surgery in Cuba. First-Hand Aid was able to help Alejandro secure all the necessary paperwork and permission to travel from Cuba to Grand Rapids for his one shot at recovery.

First-Hand Aid Board member Joel Talsma was among those who greeted Alejandro at the airport, where he experienced the kind of weather unknown to most Habaneros. “We gave him some warm clothes in preparation of introducing him to the lovely Michigan weather at 10:30 p.m.,” says Joel.

Joining Joel at the airport was a friend from Alejandro’s home town of Guines. Joel says, “Alejandro was very excited to see a familiar face. His eyes lit up and he had a big smile as if to say, ‘We made it.’ It was kind of cool to see.”

Good luck, Alejandro! Stay warm, and we’ll be thinking of you during your surgery and recovery.

To Walk Again: Alejandro’s Story

Imagine leaving your farming community for the first time ever and arriving at Miami International Airport for your first trip to the United States—from Cuba. That’s what Alejandro, a Cuban from the country town of Guines, is preparing to do. Imagine the culture shock, not only from the rural to urban environment, but also in coming to a country that is so much more advanced than his home country of Cuba.

For nine months, First-Hand Aid has been waiting to bring him here for a total hip prosthesis operation. While our two governments worked out the details, Alejandro waited—without walking—for this opportunity to have surgery. For 12 months he hasn’t walked and now, finally, he has his chance.

Alejandro is arriving in the United States this week. Follow our blog to keep up with his story that exemplifies what First-Hand Aid is all about: humanitarian efforts, medicine, and support for Cubans—one life at a time.

Bringing Medicine Where It’s Needed

By Bill Holm

A primary mission of First-Hand Aid is to deliver help to Cuban hospitals—by hand. With the blessing of the U.S. and Cuban governments, we carry badly needed medicine and medical supplies in duffel bags right through the front door of a hospital and bring it to the doctors who use it.

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We also bring donated toys, pencils and pens, crayons, books, hygiene supplies, and other items for pediatric patients. We meet with doctors, learn about the Cuban medical system, and usually deliver the toys and such to the kids in their hospital beds.

First-Hand Aid always welcomes donations of goods to deliver to Cuban people. To find out how, email contact@firsthandaid.org.

On this trip, we visited the Institute of Oncology and Radiology in Havana, a hospital that serves the entire country with a range of specialties, and is a leader in biotechnology.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to visit the children. It’s always a highlight for travelers with First-Hand Aid to bring a bit of joy to families in tough situations. But the most important thing is that the items we brought made it where they need to be. And that’s what First-Hand Aid is all about.

We also delivered supplies to the hospital in Guines, a poor town about 30 miles south of Havana, with a population of about 67,000. The doctors in Havana told us that the hospital has recently expanded its service area from the township to provincial level and is in the process of renovation. While the hospital has deteriorated since pre-revolutionary times and doesn’t yet have advanced services, needs are met by working with other hospitals in Cuba.

In Cuban hospitals, care is free. At the oncology hospital in Havana, parents from outlying provinces often stay in the hospital with their child.

Students from all over Latin America who can’t afford med school in their own countries come to this hospital and others in Cuba for training. In turn, Cuban doctors often go to countries all over the world to help.

The doctors told us that breast and lung cancers are increasing in Cuba, especially among women, which is coinciding with an increase in smoking. The Cuban government is now working to educate people about the dangers of smoking—in a country renowned for its cigars. Pollution controls on all the old diesel-converted U.S. classic cars chugging through streets would help, too, I’m sure.

Despite challenging conditions, the doctors are proud of the infant mortality rate in Cuba: 4.9 deaths per 1000 live births a year, according to the CIA World Factbook. The Factbook says the U.S. rate is 6.3. Life expectancy in Cuba is 77.7 years; in the U.S., it’s 78.3.