Diarrhoea and the Cuban doctor

Diarrhoea is the worst thing in the world. With the flu, you feel bad but at least you can still do stuff. With diarrhoea you feel bad AND you can’t go anywhere or do anything. You just spend all your time on the toilet.  

The weekend started off promisingly. I went to a club called Cafe Cantante. Amongst other things, they had two Miami based Cuban musical acts performing, Arlenis and Jaymaly. The Latin American film festival is on at the moment so on account of that, there are more events than usual on in the city. There were hoards and hoards of people and a huge long line waiting to get into the club. Someone told me if a did the “golden handshake” with the bouncer I could skip the queue, which of course I did. I slipped him a fiver and I was in! When I got inside though, there was virtually no-one in there. I’m sure they intentionally make people wait for a long time to try and extort as many bribes as possible from wannabe queue jumpers. Anyway, eventually everyone came in and it was packed and seemed like it was going to be a good night. And then it happened… The dreaded diarrhoea struck!

I could feel the pangs in my stomach so I went to the toilet. Cuban night club toilets are on par with Mexican toilets… except that at least these ones flushed! Thank God for small mercies. Nevertheless, there was no seat, no toilet paper and the door wouldn’t close. You can imagine the scene but let’s just say me in that toilet was NOT a pretty sight. The show was amazing though and worth the discomfort and embarrassment of the diarrhoea. I stuck it out in the club till about 3 a.m. and then went home. From there on, things got steadily worse.

Once at home, it really kicked in big time. It was the worst diarrhoea that I’ve had since I was in Bukhara (I’ll pause for a minute so you can Wikipedia that)… the type where you literally spend every minute on the toilet and you dehydrate so rapidly that no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to replace the fluids fast enough. Within a couple of hours my legs were all cramped, I had heart palpitations and I could barely get up out of the bed. I’ve been in that situation before so I knew I needed a doctor and medication. I called Alejandro and Karmin but they were reluctant to take me to a doctor because they didn’t want me to have to spend any money. I called another acquaintance I’ve befriended here, he came round and Lisi also came around with a big tray of meat stew, beans and rice.  

It seems a universal thing in this situation, that suddenly everyone is an expert on the topic and they know better than you or better than any doctor. They were arguing over whose home remedy was the best. Roberto was convinced that it was only the heat and that I would feel better if I only ate Lisi’s meat, beans and rice. Lisi was convinced that if I drank apple juice, my diarrhoea would go away. And they were becoming increasing annoyed that I didn’t have faith in their remedies and kept insisting that I needed medication. It’s frustrating in that situation when people are acting like egotistical dickheads…. If you become annoyed or frustrated then you are immediately the bad one. “Why are you so stubborn????” demanded Lisi. “Foreigners are so fragile!!!” exclaimed Roberto sarcastically with a big eye roll. So I caved in and went off to the shop to buy some pasteurised, processed, reconstituted from 50% apple pulp, sugar and preservative added, Cuban apple juice secure in the knowledge that now I would be cured. Lisi left and came back an hour later to check on her apple juice remedy.

I was becoming so desperate that I contemplated hiring the services of a prostitute just so they could take me to a doctor. On the next block down from my place, on the corner of Calle Infanta and Avenida 23, is “Hustler Central”. I always stop and have a chat to some of them. While some look obviously dodgy, a lot of them are decent people just trying to get by and support their families.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that though. Long story short, I got rid of Roberto because he was no help at all and finally managed to convince Lisi that I really DID need a doctor. In ten minutes Ronaldo, Lisi’s husband, had the 1950’s classic American car ready and we were off to the emergency department of the local hospital. My last and only experience with a socialist hospital was visiting Martin Greste’s mother in hospital in Riga in the late eighties and that was pretty confronting to say the least. So I didn’t hold much hope.

Once we arrived though, I was pleasantly surprised. The reception, the consultation rooms and pharmacy were all pretty nice and it could have been any doctor’s office anywhere in the world. There were a few people there ahead of me so we had to wait. While we were still waiting, Lisi turns to me and asks, “Martin, how do you feel now?” … The thing is, I was sitting in a comfortable chair in an air conditioned room… I was feeling calm because I was in the doctor’s office and knew I was going to get help soon… I was sick but I wasn’t terminally ill or had been run over by a bus… I wasn’t going to sit there and continually complain about my situation so I replied, “I feel OK”. She quickly yells out, “I told you the apple juice would work and we’re just wasting our time here.” Anyway, after about an hour’s wait and a lot of eye rolling and “O Dios” from Lisi, I got to see the doctor.

In Cuba doctors are paid very low, about 40 CUC a month which is what a lot of people in the developed world get paid for an hour or two’s work. Anyone working in the tourist industry makes easily about 20, 30 or 40 times more than a doctor and this guy’s attitude reflected this situation. Although to be fair, I’ve encountered doctors in Australia who are paid a lot of money and have been total a-holes. He did a quick examination and then sent me off to do a test for cholera. There’s no cholera in Cuba, nor have I been to any country that has cholera so for sure I needed to do a cholera test in case I had picked it up in one of the countries I had been to that doesn’t have cholera. I think it was just so they could charge me for another service and they probably didn’t record it either so they could just pocket the money. But before I could do my “stool” sample, I had to drink some water. Why? I have absolutely no idea. I had severe diarrhoea. Doing a poo was the least my worries and it was probably water that got me into this situation anyway. I think it’s just a form of socialist sport. “You can buy some bottled water at the cafeteria” said the doctor knowing full well that the cafeteria is closed. Off I went to buy some bottled water and sure enough the cafeteria was closed. I had been remarkably calm and hadn’t had any meltdowns but it was at this point I almost lost it. I already had the scenario running through my head, the one where I stand in the middle of the reception area and point to every staff member one by one and scream at the top of my lungs, “You…. You…. You…. You… And YOU are all a disgrace to the medical profession!!!!” Luckily I managed to hold it together till I got outside.

We went outside and got back into Rolando’s car and started driving around Havana looking for water. We drove around for about thirty minutes with me shouting all the while, “this is f***ing insane and that guy is a f***ing @$$hole”… “Tranquilo mi amor” says Lisi. Of course, we couldn’t find any water… Beer and rum galore but no water. Eventually we gave up and went back to the doctor and asked him if I could do my sample without drinking water first. He agreed and off I went with container in hand. Usually in Sydney when you do a urine or stool sample, the nurse gives you a brown paper bag to put it in and they’re a bit discreet about it. Not here in Cuba… I took my sample back to reception without any paper bag and the nurse promptly promenaded it around before she proudly put it on the counter on display for all to see.  

Eventually my sample came back from analysis and no, I hadn’t picked up cholera from one of the many countries I had been to that doesn’t have cholera. The doctor agreed to write me a script for some antibiotics. I got them from the pharmacy without any problem. The cost wasn’t too bad. The consultation and cholera test was 50 CUC, the medicine was about 20 CUC and I gave Lisi and Ronaldo 40 CUC for their trouble. With all commissions and exchanges etc, 1 CUC works out to be equal to about equal to 1 Euro.

I still feel terrible and haven’t been able to get out of bed except to go get some water and go to the toilet of course. Be careful what you wish for. I wanted to lose weight in Cuba and I got what I wished for!!


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