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Nurse’s trip to Cuba opens eyes, hearts

Cory Fisher

Any preconceived notions Janine Petrick had about Cuba went straight out the window just hours after her arrival.

During her two-week stay, Petrick’s days were filled with hugs, kisses, tears and words of gratitude.

“I came back with new eyes,” said the 30-year-old Barton Memorial Hospital registered nurse. “Everything is so easy here – we take so much for granted.”

Petrick served on a medical team with Interplast Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides free reconstructive surgery for children and adults in developing nations.

During the last 28 years, Interplast has sent teams of volunteer surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians and nurses to such countries as Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Petrick, however, was part of the first Interplast team to visit Cuba, a country where Americans have been denied entry for nearly four decades.

“When people found out we were from North America, they were more curious than anything else,” Petrick said. “I felt no resentment from them, but occasionally people would ask, ‘Why does your country hate us?’ We told them, ‘We don’t hate you, we just don’t know you.'”

Cuba, one of the few remaining communist regimes, is still suffering from the lack of financial support from the former Soviet Union. Unlike its Caribbean neighbors, the small country of 11 million sees no aid from the United States.

“They have socialized medicine but they have no supplies,” Petrick said. “They hear about our technological advances, but they have no access to them. I hated seeing children in the cancer ward who were unable to get enough chemotherapy.”

The condition of many facilities were shocking, Petrick said. At one large Havana hospital, running water was sporadic.

Cuban doctors were eager to learn from the expertise of the Interplast team – surgeries were often observed by more than 20 doctors and nurses.

“We were there to teach,” she said. “But by the end, they were performing the surgeries and we were watching – we loved the interchange of ideas.”

Having no political or religious affiliations, Interplast volunteers generally treat individuals born with life-debilitating deformities, such as cleft lips and palates, ear reconstructions or those who have suffered other crippling injuries. The most common are severe burns.

“The reactions from our Cuban patients were very different from those in the U.S.,” said Petrick, who grew accustomed to daily hugs and kisses. “They were told that the North Americans were coming – that they were very lucky to be chosen. They recovered fast because they didn’t see themselves as victims. I was blown away by the gratitude and loving acceptance of us.”

After an emotional two weeks, Petrick left the country with utter frustration regarding the lack of humanitarian aid from the United States.

“Our governments are having problems, not the people – it brought me to tears,” she said. “We’re led to believe we’re different. We share the same tears, joy and love for our children.”

Now that Petrick is back at Barton, she said the tales of her trip have inspired other colleagues to apply to Interplast.

“It’s rekindled my commitment to the field of nursing,” she said. “It’s a reminder of what medicine should be all about – coming from the heart.”

Those interested in learning more about Interplast Inc., may call (650)962-0123.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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