“I’m going to die here”

Craig says all the complications one can get with that type of surgery happened to him in this hospital: twisted bowel, abdominal infections, wound infections, peritonitis, leaking sutures. “It’s not unique to Cuba, it could happen anywhere; it’s just unfortunate it did happen so far from home in a third world country.

“Every time I started to get well I was back into surgery again. I still had not had any food and I was running out of strength, so three surgeries later I said to Richard: ‘I’m going to die here, I can’t get well here, the system won’t allow me to. You have to get me out or I will go back in a box.’ That was the plain reality.

“The problem was I was never well enough to leave. I was on morphine and drips, they were pumping infected fluid out of my abdomen. Most of the time I had a respirator down my throat because I was constantly coming out of theatre and ICU. I believed I was just hours from imminent death.

“I’d had three emergency surgeries: on admission, my bowel had already perforated and had been leaking inside me for a day and a half. I was doubled over with pain, infected with bowel contents and it was plain that I would have peritonitis and die. So they had to open me to see what had happened and that’s when they cut the bowel and attached it to a bag.

“However, my gut still would not work and I was blowing up so a few days later they opened me again and found the bowel was twisted around my intestines. That was the 2nd surgery. Then the bag they fitted failed and the stoma attachment fell inside me and poisoned me again, and they had to go in for a third time to repair that.

“Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I was too weak to recover, I had to get out of Cuba. We knew it was third world hospital care and they had to keep me alive and I guess that’s what they did, but I would not get well there.”

Craig’s worst day

Richard waited a couple of days for Craig to be transferred to an intermediate ward from ICU. “I wandered down to ICU to look in and suddenly here was Craig being wheeled out, he was put in a room with two other Cubans and their families. It was a noisy, confusing, terrible place where the patients were more or less left to fend for themselves. One time about 3 am the nurses started dancing to a stereo turned up high volume.

“Next day we got him into a side room. It was his worst day, he was very uncomfortable and distressed. Later Caroline phoned me to say that while settling Craig down she had found what she thought was an infection and he was starting to burn up.

“Right through we had been talking about how we could get Craig out of Cuba but no airline will take anyone who has just had abdominal surgery and he was not in a state for a flight. We just had to battle on.

“At midnight I walked to the hospital and saw he had an infection on his side that was as hot as if you had pouring boiling water onto a tea towel and held your hand on it. It was creeping up his body as we monitored him.

“We called the doctors and nurses and they said to keep him cool. They put him on a penicillin drip and handed us a cardboard box full of gauze pads and IV fluid containers. They told us to cut the IV packets open and soak the pads and apply them to keep the temperature down.

A very scary time

“We monitored his temperature all night and got into a rhythm, and I called First Assist and needed to talk to someone how could take action. We had a guy gravely ill and who now appeared to have a major infection. It was not looking good at all.

“About 3 am I got through to the chief medical officer of First Assist and told him I was fearful for Craig’s life. He promised me then they would get him out fast, no matter what condition he was in.

“This man was an Australian doctor and I had full confidence in him. In my mind, I saw a chopper coming in that morning. When I relayed all this to Craig and Caroline, it gave us all a little more hope and encouragement to hang on for a bit longer.”

Richard said: “The surgeon came in at daylight and she gave him what I would call an agricultural inspection at best and announced that ‘we need to operate again.’ It was a very scary time. Craig was summoning up the strength for this. We were lucky there was four of us. It would have been impossible for just two people to have got through this terrible time.

“We all played our part. We all seemed to know what to do. We have travelled together for many years and we were in sync. And Craig knew we were working as a team for a good outcome.”