This is what happened in Cuba

The provincial hospital in Matanzas where Craig had three emergency surgeries. It looked good from the outside, but standards, experience and facilities were extremely lacking.

“I was waiting for my bags at the Jose Marti International (Havana) airport luggage carousel and suddenly felt the urge to use the toilet, but wasn’t able to pass anything. What I did not know and was not to discover until many hours later, my bowel had ruptured inside me, flooding my abdominal cavity with highly poisonous gut contents.”

After waiting interminably for their minivan to be organised and loaded, they set off on a 2½ hour journey to a hotel at Varadero Beach resort for their first night, a trip in torrential rain over rough roads that Richard Toon described as ‘horrendous.’ The bouncing around was particularly tough for Craig.

Craig said: “When we arrived I knew I was in trouble. I was in pain. I had no idea what had happened. But I did not tell anyone, I didn’t want to cause an upset when we were embarking on the holiday of a lifetime. But I was not well enough to go out for dinner with the others.

“When they returned we decided to call a doctor and he thought I had some kind of food-related stomach bug. He injected antibiotics and if I wasn’t better by morning we should call him again.

“By the next day I was much worse, with severe stomach cramps; I was doubled over with pain.

“The doctor called an ‘ambulance.’ It was just an old van, with no medical equipment or supplies. But I had no choice. They took me to a clinic which had an ancient x-ray machine that only confirmed something was wrong with me and I had to go to hospital.”

It was an hour’s drive to the provincial hospital in Matanzas. Caroline was with him, Richard and Grazia stayed at the hotel for now.

“All of this was fraught with language problems because the Cubans speak Spanish; virtually none of them had any English and that was a continuing frustration.”

Emergency abdominal surgery

Richard got a call from Caroline in the early evening that it was an emergency and they were going to operate immediately. “This was a shock and I was quite concerned because we were in a foreign country and I didn’t want Craig being cut open by just anybody in a foreign place. We got a taxi there and he had just gone into theatre when we arrived.

We waited 2-3 hours together until he was out and into ICU, about 1 am.”

Craig knew he was seriously ill, “that I could not just be put on the next plane home to NZ. It had come down to open me up or I would die. Richard had serious misgivings about the hospital facilities and surgical experience, but in the end there was no other choice.”

A phone call was made to Craig’s insurer in NZ and from that point they were in the competent hands of First Assist, which specialises in dealing with such international medical emergencies.

First Assist guaranteed payment to the hospital before the surgery could be started. Amazingly enough, one of the First Assist team managers was a Cuban who, in addition to speaking fluent Spanish, actually knew this particular hospital. So through a complex and prolonged double translation fitted around Cuba’s 17 hour time difference with NZ, Caroline was kept informed and this is how she knew what the surgeons were planning. She was Craig’s sole means of direct communication because he was too ill to even use a phone, let alone think rationally. Calls to NZ, incidentally, cost $US5.30 a minute.

“Caroline was a rock, my lifeline. And without First Assist’s involvement I have no doubt I would not have survived this,” Craig said. “They were incredibly good. The money was one thing but it was the people in First Assist who saved my life, and the personal support team with me in Cuba.”

He was rushed into emergency surgery that night. He had been conscious virtually all of this time with the pain kept under control by morphine. He was admitted about 6pm and by midnight was under the knife in theatre.

“Caroline called Richard back at the hotel and informed them what was happening. He was extremely worried about the surgery. But I am 36 hours into this and although we thought it could be cancer or a burst appendix, all possibilities were on the table. So I signed my life away on a consent that would have said the hospital would take all care and bear no responsibility.

“The first I knew was when I woke up and Caroline came to my beside and told me that it was a burst colon, they’d disconnected it and attached it to a stoma which discharged into an external colostomy bag but it was only temporary and that in three months I’d have it removed in NZ and I’d be back to normal.

“But it sure did not work out like that.”

Meanwhile, with Caroline allocated a private room in a ward two floors above, Richard and Grazia taxied back to the hotel and got all the luggage, returning mid-morning.