My Night in an ICU — in Cuba
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sometimes intimacy comes when you least expect it.
The author is OZY’s social and email editor.
The breeze carried a sweet aroma from my Cuban espresso up to my nose, and I breathed in deeply. It was Day Three of my family’s whirlwind journey through Cuba, a trip we began planning once U.S.–Cuban relations were re-established last summer. Sitting at the end of the long lunch table with the people I loved most, I peered out on Cojimar, a small fishing village just east of Havana.
Life can change in an instant, my mom always told me. What happened next would rattle me to my core — literally.
It started in my feet, which were tingling with pins and needles, sharp enough to distract me from the delicious barbecued tuna on my plate. The more I circled my ankles and moved my toes inside my sneakers, the less I could feel of them at all. I sank in my chair, the talk at the table — of the morning’s trip to Ernest Hemingway’s estate — wafting over my head. I remembered our tour guide’s warning that morning about parasite-infested vegetables. Paranoia? Probably. Except my face felt like it was on fire, I was suddenly light-headed, and I could see the hives spreading up my legs. “I think I’m having an allergic reaction!” I shouted across the table.
Within minutes I was hobbling dizzily to our tour guide’s van. Someone lifted me onto the front seat. My heart thumped rapidly and my shoulders were leading a full-body tremble. Behind me, my family clamored with questions I couldn’t process. My hands were white, my head was throbbing, and my vision was closing in. Was I going to die? Was I going to die? Was I going to die? The question bellowed in my brain on repeat like a kitchen smoke alarm.
“I can’t feel my feet either!” my mother interrupted, from the seat behind me. My brother announced that a tomato-like red was spreading across both of our parents. “Rapido, rapido!” my aunt barked. We nearly flew over the Havana highway to the hospital, zooming past the police with no remorse.
“In Cuba, if you demonstrate an emergency, the police will escort your vehicle through the traffic lights,” the tour guide offered with pride. My spiraling mind was too distracted to appreciate this.
But a sharp realization jolted me back to the present. “Guys, the tuna!” I shouted. My parents and I were the only people who ordered it.
In the 1970s, Fidel Castro built separate hospitals for international visitors, where everything was state of the art and the payment was in the American dollars the regime needed. It was in the urgent-care wing of one of these hospitals I found myself next, lying down on a wooden table. The four nurses surrounding me wore crisp white dresses and hospital crowns that screamed 1955. They spoke to me slowly, but I could respond only with a helpless shrug: The Spanish I learned during my semester in Seville had vanished.
Mom and Dad were being treated in nearby rooms, my aunt reported, and the doctors had a diagnosis: ciguatera, a toxin that thrives in plankton at the bottom of the ocean in the colder months, and attacks the human nervous system when ingested. My aunt said it was treatable by flushing the toxin out of my veins, though the doctors didn’t know the severity of my condition yet. Somewhat relieved, I breathed in deeply, trying to recapture the stillness I felt looking out at Cojimar less than two hours before. Nope — my nasal passages were closing in.
My aunt told me to be brave. “You’ll stop trembling in moments,” she said. The nurses set up an IV filled with steroids and inserted it into my arm. I felt the medicine pour into my body, coursing through my veins.
A man in a bright white coat was standing above me when I woke up. He smiled brightly and spoke to me in English — his warmth cradling the bad news in a soft blanket. My parents were responding to the medication and would likely be released the next day. But I would not. My body had not responded quickly enough, so I would be shuttled to the Intensive Care Unit. When I opened my mouth to protest, only a whisper came out. But rolling through the hospital corridor with two nurses at my side, I released a cackle from deep in my gut — it must have been something close to disbelief. I had lived 24 years without ever seeing the inside of an ICU. “Welcome to Cuba!” I told myself.
Welcome to Cuba meant welcome to perpetual waiting. In Havana, I had watched men and women wait for their intranet cards, for the bus, for food stamps. I saw a class of kindergartners waiting diligently for one chocolate chip cookie each. In my ICU bed, I, too, was learning how to wait.
Over the next several hours, an IV fed me fluids as I watched the CNN breaking-news cycle in English on repeat. (I was shocked it was being broadcast.) The nurses, all of them women, changed shifts, and a few doctors, all of them men, came in to observe my condition. Whenever a doctor entered the room, the nurses would stand up to greet him. The doctor would kiss their foreheads, inquire after their children. The affectionate nature of the doctor-nurse relationship was traditional — stereotypical, even — and undeniably incestuous.
My mind was stirring. And then it hit me: the silver lining. The intent of this trip was to explore the island that had been cut off from the United States for a half century. Few Americans have been able to penetrate and experience the real Cuba, and while a foreigners’ hospital in Havana wasn’t exactly the real Cuba, it was closer than I’d gotten with tour guides. Ciguatera was my passport.
At 7 p.m., a half-dozen nurses gathered around my bed to take my meal orders for the next day. “No puedo comer carne de puerco. Soy judía,” I said. Only the second sentence was true (I don’t keep kosher), but for some reason — the drugs, my exhaustion, mere curiosity — I couldn’t help myself: How would they react to my being Jewish? Reaction I got. At once, I was not just a foreigner; I was a foreign species. Six pairs of Cuban eyes widened. I was proof that Jews were real.
At dawn I was awoken by a senior nurse. “Shalom!” she chirped. “I hear you are Jewish, so I say ‘shalom’ to you!” she said kindly. And at last there was good news: I would be discharged that afternoon. It wasn’t unmitigated good news — no fish, alcohol or caffeine for the foreseeable future.
In my remaining hours in the ICU, I sipped on peach juice while my nurses quizzed me on my Spanish — they found true joy in teaching me their language. One of the nurses, Patricia, showed me a slide show of her daughter’s ballet photos, and admitted she hopes her daughter’s talent will bring their family to the U.S. one day. The next morning, our family boarded our flight to Miami International Airport.