Richard Toon’s plan

Richard: “Remember virtually nobody could speak English and we had no Spanish. There was also an underlying culture we didn’t know about until later, that you just had to go along with the system. Being loud and pushy wouldn’t work, we just had to be very patient.

“So that day I said to our team: ‘We are in this for a long haul. We have to be prepared for setbacks and we must just play what is immediately in front of us, not think about what-ifs or anything in the future.

“That turned out to be a good plan for the circumstances.

“We were then told Craig had a colostomy bag fitted and that was a shock.

“We finally got to visit him in ICU. You walked down a couple of floors to another block, where a lady is sitting in reception in a little tin chair. She beckons you in, says nothing, you sit down and wait. Later she might push you out the door while she goes somewhere and has a cigarette, then she returns and beckons you back in.

“Finally she brings some green gowns for us. All this takes hours. When she is ready she calls someone to take us through a men’s toilet and along a corridor to Craig’s room. This is an old, tired, cold-tiled room. The sheets looked terrible, I’ll never forget the sight of them. He was a very sick man, wired up to an aspirator. He didn’t know we were there but you could see the fear in his eyes.

“To see him it was the same rigmarole each day.

“Caroline stayed in the ward above in a private room, and that wasn’t too bad. We got accommodation in what they call a ‘casa particulare,’ a small b&b down the road, in this town of about 200,000, with narrow streets, lots of old cars, donkeys and carts. The b&b was an area at the back of a house. It was old but ok, owned by a resident couple. He was a lecturer at the university. Neither could speak much English but he had some understanding and we were able to hire their car.

Local hangout

“At this stage, we were hoping we’d have a week of waiting for Craig’s recovery and get him onto a flight at least to the US if not NZ. A nearby restaurant became our local hangout. We’d bring meals back to Caroline’s room. The food from this restaurant there wasn’t too bad, a black beans and black rice dish with chicken, called Congrio is their staple diet. Overall the Cuban food was not good quality but it was survivable and we made friends with our hosts. Our b&b lady would give us a breakfast of fresh fruit, toast, coffee and a boiled egg. She made us a big salami and cheese sandwich that we’d take to the hospital for lunch. The place was clean and tidy and they were good hosts.

“We’d walk to the hospital after breakfast, we’d meet familiar faces on the way and slowly the austere and suspicious faces of those people began to change to smiles and waves. It took us a while to break through that. By the time we left, we had formed some kind of bond and there were actually hugs and tears.”

The travel insurer requested documentation, copies of passports, tickets, itineraries etc and this was when “the fun” started, says Richard.

“The hospital had a room with wifi for which you bought a numbered card at the local post office. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. It was hopeless. I took photos and tried to email via my phone from the hospital. That didn’t work, you could perhaps get one image though, the broadband was so slow.

“They had one computer that looked like an Amstrad 64 and they couldn’t print out. This was a hospital about the size of Taranaki Base, but looked like it was built in the 50s, had an Olympic sized pool, tennis courts, basketball courts. There was an old donkey grazing in the pool, that’s how bad was the state of everything.

The Cuba hospital’s emergency department entrance, where visitors had to bypass sleeping dogs. One even had a litter.

“When you visited the hospital you had to step over 4 or 5 dogs at the main entrance.

 And there was a man walking around in pyjamas who every day asked me for money for his operation.

“So, to get the documentation to the insurers we had to use the post office. Our hosts took us there to buy more wifi cards, then the photocopy shop, then another shop to be scanned onto a usb stick. We had to queue up outside the post office, where a security guard was letting people in one at a time. There appeared to be three loose kinds of queues.

“I was pointed to the computer queue. I waited about an hour and a half until I was called. The computer was in Spanish and almost every letter and number was worn off the keyboard.

“You had to slow down and work it out. Each step was really difficult, time-consumingly so. I was in a foreign environment, my head was buzzing, I was concerned about my mate and I just had to focus on what was in front of me. Grazia was at my side the whole time and she was fantastic support, as Caroline was for Craig.

“It took us two days to get the documentation through to the insurer. After our experiences, my advice to anyone travelling anywhere overseas, especially to a third world country, is to have your documentation on your phone, on a usb stick and hard copies in your bag.

Stocking up on provisions

“We knew we were going to be in Cuba for a while so we needed a jug for Caroline’s room, tea and coffee, milk. We had to think about what Craig might need when he came out of ICU. And we bought some clean sheets for him. The rundown old hardware store had a dog out front that had just had pups in a cardboard box. People were feeding it. Bags had to be checked in at the door with a guard. On the way out you had to show your goods and docket and he checked them off. They had everything one needed but goods on the shelves were sparse, like two jars of coffee only.

“We mostly used taxis back and forth. You’d signal a group of men and they’d have a discussion and eventually, someone would beckon and we go to their car which might be a little Simca or an old American limo. The fares were about US$2 each way and I paid a good tip to ensure we could always get a taxi in a hurry.”

Richard thought they would be helping Craig from ICU to the ward “but when he arrived he was a very ill man”. He’d gone through some very scary isolation, as we hadn’t been able to spend more than about 15 minutes at a time at his bedside. So most of the time he was alone, unable to speak because he was hooked to the aspirator and because of the language barriers nobody was telling him anything anyway.

“We got him comfortable in the ward and all the time we were talking to First Assist in Auckland. We would tell them what we understood was happening and they would then phone the hospital, translate that to the hospital, then call us back and tell us whether we had understood correctly, so we knew what to expect.

“We were told to get Craig up and walking asap, and through the translation via First Assist, the hospital confirmed this was correct.

“We spent the next few days getting Craig up but he wasn’t getting any better and as time passed his tummy became very distended and after several days the surgeons told us there was a problem and had to go back into theatre.”