The United States government took a major step forward in its mission to normalize relations with Cuba when on Friday it opened the first U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Havana since 1961.
Now a medical mission group in Lenexa is preparing for a Cuba trip of its own.
Heart to Heart International, a nonprofit that collects medical supplies for disaster relief and other medical relief around the world, has collected enough basic medical supplies to fill a 40-foot-long container.
As soon as the Cuban government gives its approval, which could be as early as September or October, a team of workers from the group will travel to Florida and board a ship to Cuba to personally deliver supplies that include catheters, syringes, rubber gloves, diapers, thermometers and antibiotics to a pediatric hospital that is in desperate need.
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Materials will be delivered to Hospital Pediátrico William Soler in Havana, where, according to Heart to Heart CEO Jim Mitchum, physicians are sometimes forced to improvise.
“Some of their doctors are using plastic bags on their hands instead of gloves,” said Mitchum, who traveled to Cuba in recent months to meet with medical authorities.
Cuban physicians, he noted, have long been held in high esteem.
“It is an interesting contrast,” Mitchum said. “Cuba is a major medical educator for the entire South American and Central American set of countries. Their medical education is perceived in Latin America as the best.
“When we went to Liberia to fight Ebola, a Cuban doctor came in to treat patients there in Monrovia. That doesn’t mean they always have the money or the supplies necessary to do what they know how to do.”
Heart to Heart’s relationship with Cuban authorities was created over the last few years through the efforts of Heart to Heart founder Gary Morsch, a physician who traveled to Cuba in 2013 with the Nazarene Church.
President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba announced in December that the U.S. and Cuba would restore full diplomatic ties. But the Obama administration since 2009 has been reducing restrictions on U.S. citizens’ dealings with Cuba, including allowing greater travel for educational, religious and other reasons.
The Nazarene Church has had a presence in Cuba since 1902.
“We’re rapidly growing,” said Robert Prescott, who works from Annapolis, Md., as the church’s coordinator of partnerships for the Mesoamerica region.
Cuba is home to 9,000 Nazarene members in 119 churches.
Prescott said that twice each month, Nazarene volunteers and others travel to Cuba to help maintain the denomination’s congregations and ministries.
“Cuba has a great shortage of medicine,” Prescott said. “Even people traveling to Cuba, they encourage you to bring medicines with you because they have such a shortage.”
Mitchum said Heart to Heart is working with other nonprofits to bring in supplies such as hospital beds.
“We have the container just about ready to go,” said Mitchum, who is waiting on Cuban authorization. “And we’re not going to just ship it and forget. We’re going to see it all the way through to the hospital.”