Neither the cold nor the language intimidated the young Cuban doctor Roberto Arias Hernández, who for two months has been part of the contingent of white coats sent by Cuba to northern Italy to fight on the front line against the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are simply doctors and today we have had to play our role more than ever. We are fighting against a pandemic and we are the ones who act in this situation,” the 28-year-old internist tells the AFP in a modest tone, shortly before starting his day in the special cast covid-19 of the Hospital Mayor de Crema, in the heart of Lombardy, the region hardest hit by the pandemic.
On his first overseas mission, Arias is part of the Henry Reeve contingent, along with 51 other doctors and specialists, of whom more than half have experience fighting Ebola in Africa.
A mission started on March 22 under an insistent rain, marked by the “abysmal” cold of the European winter for a Cuban in Crema, a city of 34,000 inhabitants, plunged in silence and pain, in the martyr province of coronavirus, with more than 15,000 deaths of the 31,610 registered so far throughout the peninsula.
– The fear –
“Fear is always felt, because you are going to fight at that moment at the epicenter of the pandemic worldwide,” confesses Arias.
“The feeling is that you want to do it, but you’re also afraid of not living up to it. Although when we arrived and started working here, we did quite well,” he says.
In addition to the pride he feels, Arias is aware of the multiple challenges of being part of a team of experts who work side by side with doctors trained in European universities, in much more comfortable economic conditions than those of his country.
“Italian doctors have a personality like that of Cubans. They are hearty, very happy, everyone greets you, they thank you for being here. Some get their jokes. They have a very similar personality,” he says.
“At the technical language level we understand each other perfectly,” he says.
Arias, who has been working non-stop since he arrived, begins the day with a visit to the patients accompanied by an Italian doctor and a nurse, after completing the obligatory ritual for health personnel to become a sort of cosmonaut, wearing robes, mask, glasses, clear visor, double glove.
“The morning schedule is the most difficult, when you are going to get out of bed. It is when you feel tired. But you react and realize that you came to this and that is what you are fighting for, you give yourself a shower and you say ‘here we go again’, “he says.
– The pride of being a doctor –
Arias, the father of an 11-month-old baby, confesses that it “fills him with joy” to hear applause from doctors, nurses and health personnel from balconies and windows around the world.
“It is a strong drive,” he says excitedly.
“Every time we hear the applause we feel indescribable pride,” says the young doctor who has received hundreds of messages and letters of thanks, particularly from artists and children.
“The reception of the Italian people has been very warm. People hang ‘thank you Cuba, thank you Cuba’ from the windows of their houses,” he recalls.
“We will return to the homeland with the duty accomplished. We will be here as long as necessary to combat the epidemic,” says Carlos Pérez Díaz, chief of the contingent that includes 35 doctors, 11 nurses and a logistics expert, They reside at the headquarters of the Diocese of Crema.
“Many of us do not have religious beliefs (…) but being able to be before the main figure in the world who profess good, would be really great,” admits Arias considering the possibility of meeting the Argentine Pope Francisco, who has many words of praise for doctors, who are considered “heroes” in the face of the pandemic.
Asked about criticism of the eventual retribution to Cuba for these humanitarian medical services, Arias replied without hesitation.
“Cuban doctors have never come out for financial interest. We come to help without asking for anything in return. If this helps other countries to offer financial or in-kind donations, it is appreciated,” he summarizes.
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