July 19, 2007 / 7:04 PM / 10 years ago

SiCKO patients got VIP treatment in Cuba

<p>A doctor treats a patient as colleagues observe during an operation at the Ramon Pando Ferrer hospital in Havana September 12, 2006. Three New York rescue workers injured in the September 11 attacks got the best treatment Cuba can offer in Michael Moore's film critique of U.S. health care, the Cuban doctors who attended them said this week. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa</p>

HAVANA (Reuters) - Three New York rescue workers injured in the September 11 attacks got the best treatment Cuba can offer in Michael Moore’s film critique of U.S. health care, the Cuban doctors who attended them said this week.

The 9/11 responders spent 10 days on the 19th floor of Cuba’s flagship hospital with a view of the Caribbean sea, a sharp contrast to many Cuban hospitals that are crumbling, badly lit, and which lack equipment and medicines.

They included a fireman and an emergency medical technician, Regina Cervantes, with respiratory problems caused by inhaling dust and fumes in the World Trade Center ruins.

There were given a barrage of tests, including a psychological evaluation, and new dosages of medication. One got a tooth implant for a jaw fractured at Ground Zero.

The main difference with their treatment in the United States: there was no bill.

“We can’t say we did miracles in the few days they were here. What we did was give them the highest quality treatment. It was totally free,” said Dr. Nelson Gomez, medical director of the Hermanos Almejeiras Hospital.

“They were not here long, but they did improve.” he said.

Cervantes, who rushed to Ground Zero on September 11 and had a badly burnt airway after three days of rescue work, said last month that after being treated in Havana she was taken off medication she could hardly afford in the United States.

The movie, “SiCKo”, has stirred heated debate in the United States since opening in June.

Moore used Cuba to argue that other countries are providing better health care to its citizens than the United States with far fewer resources, putting the blame on profit-driven U.S. pharmaceutical and medical insurance industries.

Communist Cuba’s universal free health system has achieved low child mortality and high longevity rates on a par with rich nations since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

But the hospital where SiCKO’s patients were treated is an exception in Cuba, where patients of many other hospitals complain they have to take their own sheets and food.

The building with a majestic high-ceiling lobby was meant to be Cuba’s central bank when it was started by U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Completed years after Castro’s revolution, it was turned into Cuba’s top hospital.

The 750-bed Hermanos Almejeiras is Cuba’s main hospital for heart and liver transplants with a staff of 500 doctors and 800 nurses.

Cuban health officials say they have given priority to preventing disease by renovating a network of 498 neighborhood health centers across the island that bring health care closer to people’s homes.

The number of children dying before their fifth birthday is seven per 1,000 live births in Cuba, versus eight per 1,000 in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.

At Rampa Polyclinic in Havana, where Moore’s group was seen before referral to hospital, Dr. Juan Carlos Castellanos said Cubans do not die of infectious diseases prevalent in Third World countries.

“The main causes of death in Cuba are the same as in rich nations: cardiovascular disease and cancer,” he said, sitting under a picture of revolutionary icon and doctor, Che Guevara.

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