June 14, 2001

Havana healing: Cuba opens arms to victims of Chernobyl

By Tracey Eaton / The Dallas Morning News. Thursday | June 14, 2001

TARARÁ, Cuba – They laugh and prance along the beach, toss their towels onto the sand and rush toward the turquoise-blue water, all the while chattering away – not in Spanish, but in Ukrainian.

These children's light-hearted mood belies the dark legacy that they share, that of Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear accident. They didn't see Reactor No. 4 spew tons of toxins into the air in 1986. Many of them hadn't even been born. But most have radiation-related illnesses believed to be linked to the disaster.

Now they are in Cuba to get well. To feel whole. To endure.

It's been more than a decade since Cuba's chief sponsor, the Soviet Union, cut off about $6 billion per year in aid. But the Cubans have been treating Chernobyl victims nonstop since 1990 and will soon hit a milestone: The 20,000-patient mark.

They say they carry on to show the world that much can be accomplished with meager resources and creative approaches – such as using shark cartilage and human placenta to cure many ills.

Patients' families at the Cuban treatment center in Tarará, east of Havana, say they are grateful.

"After my son's hair began to fall out, we tried traditional medicine. But that didn't work," said Lena Melanchenko, 34. "Here we are already seeing some improvement."

Explosions ripped through Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, nearly destroying Reactor No. 4 and releasing at least 200 times more radiation than the atomic bombs dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

Thirty-one people died outright. Many others – the estimates vary widely from 4,000 to 200,000 – have since died of radiation-related illness. And millions – 17 million by one estimate – suffered some degree of contamination.

"It was very difficult. It was like a war," said Zinaida Shovkova, whose son is being treated at Tarará.

'I can't describe'

Ms. Shovkova, 45, sat in the living room of her temporary home. Sun streaming from a window shone on her face. She wiped away a tear.

"I can't describe with words all the suffering, the pain."

No doubt, the Chernobyl nightmare weighs heavily on the minds of many patients at Tarará, although some marked this year's 15th anniversary of the disaster not with tears, but with song and dance.

Music, art, sun and sand – for some patients, at least – are as important as careful medical treatment, said Julio Medina, director of the hospital 12 miles east of Havana.

"Group therapy," he calls it.

It is also important is to treat Chernobyl patients as ordinary youngsters – even if they lose their hair or have skin problems, he said.

"A lot of the kids arrive wearing baseball caps and long-sleeved shirts," Mr. Medina said. "They're ashamed of how they look. But usually after two or three weeks, they take those off. They see that Cubans don't discriminate against them. We don't make fun of them. We teach them that there are more important things than looks – things like intelligence."

During the first three years of the program, patients arrived from Russia, Armenia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. The Soviet Union broke up, and now only Ukraine sends patients to the hospital.

Cuban doctors say they have found that the patients suffer from a double whammy of sorts – not only are most of them sick, they have also had to endure the Soviet empire's fall, which brought with it economic trouble and declines in medical care.

One consequence is that many arriving patients have health problems that have nothing to do with Chernobyl – from cavities to gastritis and parasites, Mr. Medina said.

The chosen ones

A Cuban specialist in the Ukraine selects which patients will journey to Tarará. The patients' families must pay airfare. Once in Cuba, the medical care is free.

The hospital is just blocks from a long stretch of sand that before the 1959 revolution drew some of Havana's more affluent families. After Fidel Castro took power and many of the rich fled to Miami and other cities, Tarará was turned into a youth camp where boys and girls were schooled in revolutionary ideals.

Now the youth camp is gone, and the government is renovating the homes at Tarará and renting them to cash-carrying foreigners, some of whom are wealthy. One recent visitor was the Prince of Monaco. He and members of his entourage played volleyball on the beach, where three-time Cuban gold medalist and volleyball champ Mireya Luís joined them.

The children of Chernobyl frolic on the same beach almost every day. They also attend classes, put on cultural shows and learn to dance.

Since 1990, more than 80 percent of those treated at Tarará have been children. About 3 percent of the patients are very ill and stay an average of nine months to a year; 17 percent are less sick but must be hospitalized upon arrival; 60 percent can be treated as outpatients; and the rest appear to be healthy but are checked for symptoms of radiation-related sicknesses, doctors say.

Thyroids to tumors

Patients' health problems range from thyroid disorders to tumors. Doctors using medicine made from human placenta and shark cartilage say they have managed to cure up to 99 percent of some types of skin problems.

Parents of Chernobyl children say they are hopeful, but not all are convinced that success rates are quite so high.

Ms. Shovkova, an engineer, said she traveled to the island because she had heard stories of Cuban medical prowess and wanted to help her son, Nicolai, 7, whose hair has been falling out.

"I came to Cuba because people said it is the first country to be able to treat these problems with great success," she said through a Ukrainian translator.

But so far, she doesn't see much change in Nicolai's condition.

Adjusting to life in Cuba, which has economic troubles of its own, has also been difficult, she said.

"Here we eat rice and beans. I can't get used to this food. In Ukraine, we ate much better."

Like many of the children, Nicolai has picked up some Spanish. Buenos días (Good morning), Cómo está? (How are you?), and Hasta mañana, (Until tomorrow) are among his favorites. But he is homesick and misses his father and grandfather back home.

"All I like about Cuba is the beach," he grumbled.

Then he remembered one other thing he likes: "The canonazo," he said. At 9 p.m. daily, men in 18th-century military outfits fire a cannon from a fort overlooking the Bay of Havana.

Lena Melanchenko said her son, Maxim, 7, is happy. And Cuban medicine is working, she said.

Cuba's warm ocean waters, "sun and climate could be helping him, too," she added. "He likes the beach, and he has started to swim."

© 2001 The Dallas Morning News


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