Back to the Basics: Reflections on Cuban Medicine, and Minnie’s Story

by Connie Hernandez, ND

Prior to departing for Cuba to visit with Dr. Marcel’s extended family, we learned of several people with conditions requiring medical attention.

Minnie, Dr. Marcel’s cousin, with Dr. Connie.

Dr. Marcel’s first cousin, Minnie, had seen doctors due to fatigue, bleeding gums, and red and purple skin spots. Repeated blood tests revealed a dangerously low and decreasing platelet count, cause unknown.

Low platelets have a myriad of causes, including infection, autoimmune disorders, leukemia, and drug induction (as in chemotherapy) or radiation treatment.

Infection seemed most probable, as Dengue Fever and Chikungunya viral infections are endemic to Cuba, though Minnie did not recall any illness.

After treatment with iron and vitamin C, Minnie’s gums stopped bleeding after treatment. (She had requested that we bring those nutrients with us, in addition to further treatments.)

The challenge was to find remedies that would be appropriate regardless of the cause of the illness, and that could be found in Cuba so that Minnie could continue her therapy. 

We started with foods and medicines to avoid, and which foods to emphasize for specific nutrients. We also evaluated potential environmental toxins and possible drug-related issues.

Papaya leaf, beetroot juice, and sesame oil topped our list.

We emphasized plants that we thought would be available in Cuban gardens or through traditional healers (curanderos).

We noted that the readily available moringa leaf could increase platelet count, and that specific homeopathics would also be of value.

Dr. Connie Hernandez, ND

We had thought to advise oranges and other tropical fruits for Vitamin C, only to find no fruit trees in sight. The thought of an orange brought tears to Minnie’s eyes, as they had been unavailable for years.

We didn’t see papayas on papaya trees, and the papaya fruits in the markets were in a sorry state.

Minnie is of a generation that lost connection with traditional therapies when Western pharmaceuticals were introduced.  We therefore made it one of our key missions in Cuba to seek out shops that offered traditional and complementary medicines, and to find a traditional healer for Minnie.

Hampered by distribution issues, and by shortages brought on by the American embargo, the Cuban government began promoting research of traditional and complementary medicines, encouraging farmers to grow medicinal plants, and pharmacies to integrate natural medicines. 

School gardens were created to introduce elementary school students to herbs and vegetables. Homeopathic medicines such as PrevengHO were used to promote immunity during COVID. But the government didn’t promote the “green medicines,” so the people still had no idea how use them.

During our stay, we followed many leads, but found frustratingly few natural medicines in the supposedly integrated pharmacies, and didn’t find the healer for Minnie.

However, we were able to bring her a supply of iron and B12/folate, Vitamin C, and bioflavonoids, beet root powder, and other items.

By our last day, we had procured a ripe papaya and fresh papaya leaves, which we picked from a scrawny plant that we found growing through sidewalk cracks.

We prepared remedies from the leaves and gave Minnie instructions for ways to use them to raise her platelet count.

 While we’d hoped to accomplish so much more, our time in Cuba emphasized for us that growing natural medicines and familiarizing ourselves with their use is imperative, especially in these current chaotic times when shortages are likely to become increasingly rampant. Complementary medicine is no longer an alternative, it is foundational!

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