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Keeping an eye out for Cuba


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by TREVOR YEARWOODBARBADIAN beneficiaries are so impressed with Cuba’s much-talked-about free eye surgery programme that they have decided to help it.About 75 have just launched an association with the aim of promoting Operation Miracle and providing some funding  or even food supplies.The Friends of Cuba’s Eye Programme, Barbados, is headed by retiree Christopher Walters and brings together people who have been to Cuba for treatment of eye problems.Walters told the  DAILY NATION the group  was essentially a symbol of Barbadians’ gratitude for Cuban medical aid, humanitarianism and hospitality.Walters was among 70 Bajans who were in Cuba from October 26 to November 16 last year to have eye surgery under a programme that has already helped restore sight to more than 1.6 million since it was launched five years ago.“We were so touched  by the fact that people  whose circumstances were  not the best could extend this kind of generosity to us,” Walters remarked during  last week’s meeting of the committee at St Mary’s  Primary School, Bridgetown. “We said if they, who were in such need, could be so generous to us, we have to reciprocate.  So we decided that we would  set up this group. Our goal is  to raise funds to assist the hostels where we stayed. Other Barbadians who are going down to Cuba for eye surgery would benefit from it and members  of staff of the hostels would  also benefit from it.”Walters said that while the association was looking to Cubans to determine what areas would be assisted, diet seemed to be a good area to tackle. “When we were there, the diet was rice twice a day, every day,” he reported. “The Cubans are not able to trade the way they would like. So they eat what they grow. They grow rice and they grow certain ground provisions, and that is what they eat and they seem  to be pretty happy with it.”The Cuban eye care programme was initially introduced as a one-year operation for Barbados  but had to be extended because of the number of people who needed surgery.The first group of beneficiaries went to Cuba on January 10, 2009. Since then there were eight other groups, each for an average stay of three weeks. Some patients had the operation on one eye; others  on both.Up to last January,  354 Barbadians had received specialist eye care in Havana.There are said to be more than 500 people waiting  to benefit from the programme, which the Cubans have put  on hold for the time being.“We found it unbelievable that so many people had gone before us and no one had thought to turn back and say thanks, so we decided that  we would do it,” Walters  told the DAILY NATION.He described the accommodation and the quality of service in Cuba as beyond expectations.“We were housed in very nice accommodations, hotel accommodation, rooms with air-conditioning, television, refrigerator, room service, even maid service,”  he recalled.“You are fed in a beautiful, well-appointed restaurant with a well-trained staff and your medical and social  needs are met by a well-trained medical and ancillary staff, who are very courteous, very professional.“We were treated to cultural programmes for entertainment. We had a beautiful courtyard where we could sit and talk and we had church services every Sunday under this courtyard.”Walters’ group stayed at two locations. “The first week we spent at one hostel,” he noted. “It was like a hotel but instead  of maids and waiters,  we saw nurses. “It was very, very nice, but the grounds weren’t as accommodating as the second place. Somehow we tend to remember the second place more. There was more personal contact at the second place. “People were more friendly. They were professional but they were more friendly. You knew them by their first name. They used to actually come and look for you when they came on duty.”Members of Walters’ executive committee include deputy chairperson Hazel Harris, secretary Marlene Walters, treasurer Philip Morris and floor members Shirlene Drakes, Vera Elliott, Julia Lovell and Sylvan Whitney.Walters said they planned to return to Cuba at some time, with a view to seeing much more  of the country. “We were not able to go out of the compound,” he admitted. “I understand people used to go out but it was causing problems. It was messing up the schedule because when they (the medical staff) were looking for people who were scheduled for surgery, they weren’t in the compound. “So they decided, well, look, you are not tourists; you are patients. We will make you happy where you are, but you are not allowed to leave. “So when we came back to Barbados, we decided we will return to Cuba at some time.”Walters said one of the most touching incidents occurred during the last church service his group attended in Cuba.“A guy sang a tune  If We Never Meet Again, he said. “As he sang,  he walked around  and shook everybody’s hand. Everybody’s eyes were wet. I believe  that song is what is keeping us together.”