Chernobyl Children in Cuba: An Untold Story (Part 3)

March 29 marked 32 years since 139 children from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus arrived in Cuba after the impact of the explosion of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. On that day, the longest humanitarian program in human history was born. Part 3 of this series focuses on the testimony of Dr. Xenia Laurenti and Doctor Obed Hernández, 2 important  Cuban medical professionals who dedicated themselves to the project.

In 1990 Dr. Xenia Laurenti was getting ready to go on a medical mission, first to Nigeria and then to an area of Siberia in the former USSR with Argentine specialists. When the Chernobyl accident occurred, she had already finished her Russian language training in Cuba and was asked to join the medical program in Tarara. She participated as a doctor in the program until its conclusion in 2011 and is known for her special relationship with patients and their families, which continues to this day.

Dr. Xenia has witnessed not only the care of those children but also the return of many of them to care for their children in Cuba. She was part of the medical team that after 1998 worked in the Eupatoria Spa in Crimea to follow up on the medical care that took place in Cuba or that was attended directly there. She spent two years in Eupatoria and witnessed the evolution of patients from children to adults with their families or their own children, also affected by the aftermath of the nuclear catastrophe.

Xenia remembers Saslavsky, who arrived in Cuba at the age of nine. She was diagnosed with a neurological disease with multiple bone deformities. She was treated at the International Center for Neurological Restoration (CIREN) where she underwent several operations. After more than ten years in Cuba, she walked when she returned to Ukraine. Dr. Xenia also remembers that Saslasvsky’s mother was with her son during all that time without ever returning to visit her country which was a decisive factor in her rehabilitation.

She remembers the case of Stephanie, who arrived in Cuba at the age of four with a cavernous angioma, a highly complex vascular malformation that caused great deformities in her face. She underwent several surgeries and maxillofacial grafts over the years and returned to Ukraine in November 2011 with remarkable progress in her disease and physical appearance. Stephanie is remembered for her friendliness, for having learned Spanish very well. Now as a young woman she returned to Cuba with her mother and she sought out Dr. Xenia who had remarried and many of her patients came to Cuba to celebrate with her.  Stephanie’s youth was spent in the program and her personal files are a walk through life, loving and full.

Doctor Obed Hernández worked in Tarará since 1989 when the resort was the José Martí Pioneer Camp was a place for Cuban children to spend a vacation. After it was converted into a space for the care of Chernobyl patients, he remained working there. Obed remembers above all the psychological condition of the children when they arrived. It was a collective terror and a very strong feeling of uprooting, mainly for those who came from Pripyat, where they had to quickly leave behind all their belongings and memories.  Obed confirms that practically none of the children who came were completely healthy and more than 70 percent had thyroid diseases.

Dr. Obed was also part of the Cuban medical team in Crimea for two periods, one for three years and the other for five years. There he met and married a Ukrainian woman. Among his memories is the care he gave in Ukraine to a child who was a victim of an automobile accident whose father went to see him to ask for help because of the polytraumas he was suffering from. After a year in Cuba, the boy was able to walk.

The translation service in Tarará was an essential component of the project and was maintained 24 hours a day. The translators worked rotating shifts and were essential in the communicative and emotional connection with the Cuban medical and paramedical staff. María Nilda Báez says that by spending so much time with the children, the relationships became familiar. She started at Tarará in the physiotherapy service and remembers Denis, who was a child at the time with a diagnosis of cerebral palsy and was unable to walk. He underwent two operations at Frank País Hospital, had a long rehabilitation and returned to his country walking with the help of canes. Nilda saw him in Ukraine in 2011, visited him at his home, and shared time with his family. Today he is more than 30 years old and they still write and communicate with her.  He sends her photos and keeps her updated on his life.

Osvaldo Cruz was a Russian language teacher and when the call came for people who knew Russian, he joined the program for three months, which turned into 20 years. First he had to study hard to know the medical terminology. He participated as a translator not only with patients but also with Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian delegations visiting Tarara.

He remembers that when the boys and girls arrived they felt sorry for the spots on their skin and lack of hair, but when they began to interact with each other they gained self-confidence and no longer hid. He recalls the quinceañera parties for the teenage girls. Every three months there were collective parties, they would rent dresses for the occasion and prepare waltzes for the party. The Jovencita Tarará (Young Tarará Girl) day was also organized, in which a young woman was chosen, with singing and dancing skills and who spoke Spanish well.  Osvaldo says that the children enjoyed these occasions very much. Osvaldo keeps in his memory Mijaíl, a  boy who was attached to him all the time and whom his parents wrote to him to take good care of him. His own son and Mikhail became great friends with him. Ukraine was also part of Osvaldo’s experience in the program for two years.  There he found his love. There are many instances of these types of loving relationships that continue to this day, including those Chernobyl children who made Cuba their other homeland forever.

Source: Cuba en Resumen