"I want to be empowered to move around whenever I want to."
In 2010, Estrella was finally able to retire after working for many years. She's lived in Cuba her whole life and it would be hard for her to leave, but her daughter and son-in-law left her home country and moved to Russia several years ago. Not long after they moved, away, Estrella took a bad fall. Like many Cubans, she dealt with the pain for a long time. She fell again several years later and fractured her right femur. A knee implant and other experimental procedures on her knee were unsuccessful, and when the knee implant failed she spent the next three months in a wheelchair.
In Estrella'shome country of Cuba, basic healthcare is provided by the government, but many high-level specialty surgeries simply are not available. Through the Operation Walk Carolinas joint replacement mission, she finally received a high quality knee implant in May 2017.
Since her operation, she's learned to walk again, slowly but surely. Her immediate goals are to be empowered to get up on her own and walk around, and to eventually start gardening again. She especially likes herbs, herbal medicines and flowers. Estrella rarely gets to travel but she hopes to one day go to Russia to see her daughter and family, which now includes a grandson: "He's going to be a nuclear physicist one day, I just know it!"
He's 71 now, but you wouldn't know it by looking at Ancelmo. He still has bright, sparkling eyes and the lingering look of youth, the result of an active lifestyle that kept his energy sustained and his body in motion. He's played basketball almost his whole life; in fact, he was a star guard for the University of Havana's basketball team. Ancelmo has never been to the United States but his favorite team is the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James. Golden State is a close second.
Even into his 60s Ancelmo has played regular pickup hoops with a group of friends. They're a squad with a close bond, and they used to play almost daily. Over the past five years, Ancelmo started having trouble with his hips and knees. He gets free healthcare through the Cuban system but wasn't able to access the specialty joint replacement surgeries he so desperately needed. When Operation Walk Los Angeles came to Havana several years ago, he was able to have a knee operated on, but he still had hip issues. In May 2017 he was finally able to have a hip replacement when Operation Walk Carolinas made their inaugural trip to Cuba. The morning after surgery, he was standing on both feet and took his first steps. Tears welled up in his eyes.
Ancelmo has family in New York, Miami and South Carolina. He doesn't know if he'll ever make it to the United States, but he dreams about it a lot, especially seeing an NBA basketball game. For now he's focused on getting his hip back in shape, and getting back outside with a basketball. His friends are waiting.
A Lifetime of Service
Service is a big part of life for Jose Ramon Perez. He has long worked for the Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Havana, who is a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. As the Archbishop's accountant he has a lot of responsibility, and says he works and reads a lot. Jose also has a big responsibility for his family, which includes his wife, son and young granddaughter. They all live together in one house in Havana.
Juan had dealt with excruciating pain when walking for many years that often kept him from working, and unable to help provide for his family. Being unable to walk without difficult meant being unable to walk around his beloved Havana. Juan's friend, the Archbishop of Miami, knew of Operation Walk Carolinas and helped him get in touch with the team. Like many other Cubans, Juan simply had no access to the specialty surgery needed to heal his pain and help him walk again.
Juan had both knees replaced during Operation Walk Carolina's inaugural trip to Cuba and was up and walking on the second day with his walker. He's in his 70s but Juan says he plans to serve his Archbishop for a few more years before he retires, mainly because he is devoted and simply likes to work.
Ernesto is 28 years old and like many other Cubans has never really been outside his country. There is no longer a travel ban that prohibits Cubans from going abroad, but visas to exit the country are still costly in a nation where the average monthly salary is around $25 per month.
When he was younger, Ernesto wanted to be a lawyer. His dad is a lawyer in Havana, Cuba, where he and his family live, and like many young boys, he wanted to be just like his dad. He'll never forget what his dad told him about going into the workforce: "Being a lawyer you can make a lot of enemies. Do something that enables you to help humanity." His mom's advice was just as impactful – she wanted him to become a doctor, and so, that's what Ernesto did.
It's been 10 years since Ernesto chose the medical field at age 18. After high school, he went to medical school for six years and originally planned to be a cardiologist, but no Cuban hospitals were in need of a cardiologist."I had to pick orthopedics."
The Cuban government runs a national health system, covering health care for its citizens, and all health services are government-run. While Cubans have access to general care, specialty healthcare in the country is much harder to come by as few doctors and surgeons have the training or instruments of those in the United States.
Four years ago, Ernesto chose orthopedics as his specialty. It wasn't his top choice, and he knew the training would be challenging because of the lack of surgeons in his field, but he knew the need for orthopedic surgery in Cuba was extremely high. During his residency he did rotations in other specialties so he has a strong medical background.
"I've seen firsthand how arthroplasty can improve the lives of people, so I know it's important to train to do something that will help people live better lives and be able to work and care for their families," he says."It's incredible to learn new techniques."
In 2016 Operation Walk Pittsburgh came to Havana and for the first time Ernesto had the chance to learn the latest orthopedic surgical techniques alongside skilled surgeons. He spent long hours each day in the operating room, picking up new skills and mastering new technology. In 2017 Operation Walk Carolinas came to Havana and again Ernesto spent long hours becoming an expert in surgical techniques, using tools and instruments he'd never seen before because they are not available in Cuba. He trained with different surgeons to learn different approaches to hip and knee replacements, and even led a knee arthroplasty on his own for the very first time.
"It excites us to have OpWalk teams in Cuba because we can learn new things and meet great people," Ernesto says. "I plan to continue to do my best to help people. Our futures as surgeons and medical professionals here depend on the opportunities we get."
Update: In October 2017 Ernesto and another Cuban orthopedic surgeon Rafael were able to visit the United States and train for a month at the OrthoCarolina Hip and Knee Center under the OrthoCarolina International Fellows program. They have since returned to Havana and continue to keep in close contact with the Operation Walk Carolinas team.