Still Life Gallery
January 24, 2019 | Ed Foster Jr.
January 24, 2019 | Ed Foster Jr.
February 22, 2013 | Ed Foster Jr.
October 9, 2012 | Ed Foster Jr.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta tilted her blue and white veil-clad head upward and locked onto the eyes of her Cuban interpreter. What she spotted through the hot and fume-laden air rising from the tarmac was not a mirage. It was real; it was despair.
When the diminutive nun reached up to grasp Carmen Vallejo’s hands it seemed to be a signal. The tall blonde bent low nearly pressing her ear against the future saint’s lips. “Love the children,” Mother whispered.
Those three words didn’t fully register with Carmen but they kept replaying in her head.
Only the prominence of her family allowed Carmen a return flight to Cuba after her defection in the early days of 1981. A prodigal welcome it was not. She and here husband, Rey, were spit upon, branded worms and only her mother, Maria, would speak with them.
Carmen remained mired in a pit of depression for seven years.
In 1988, weeks after Mother Teresa’s departure, Carmen climbed from the depths of her depression long enough to visit the children’s cancer ward at Instituto Nacional de Oncologia y Radiobiologia in Havana. As she walked past the sterile green beds that seemed to envelope the bald-headed, small people she smiled from deep within for the first time in years.
With moist eyes, the mother of one four-year-old fretted that her son would not survive until his next birthday. At that moment, Carmen recalled Mother Teresa’s three simple words. Carmen was born again. Her pit was sealed.
She volunteered to throw a birthday party for the youngster. It would be an unforgettable celebration with balloons, banners, and cake and ice cream on the following Saturday at the hospital. She announced the party aloud and invited everyone within earshot.
And thus began Carmen and Rey’s simple ministry of loving the children.
Now the couple never misses an opportunity to celebrate. Sometimes they invent reasons. Parents and children gather in the library of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Vedado every Saturday afternoon. There they find love and they rediscover hope. And there they find help, solidarity and consolation.
At times there are tears and sadness when a child departs this world. But there is never despair because Carmen continues to live the words of Mother Teresa.
“Love the children.”
October 8, 2012 | Ed Foster Jr.
Cementerio de Colon is a behemoth and monochromatic city of earthly remains in central Havana. For all of its marble and granite excesses it is typically devoid of color, except for one location. And there, at the final resting place of Amelia Goyri de Adot and her husband, Eduardo Adot y Lopez, a colorful moat of flowers tightly surrounds their graves.
There are as many stories as deceased in this 56 hectare cemetery, but perhaps none more widely known, or believed, as that of La Milagrosa – The Miraculous.
According to legend, Senora Goyri was pregnant at the time of her death just after the turn of the 20th century and she, along with the unborn child in her womb, were laid to rest. When her beloved Eduardo died in 1914, the crypt was prepared and for whatever reason her casket was opened. And behold, in her long-still arms she was holding their lifeless child.
Word spread rapidly across the island. And to this day, some parents who cannot conceive and those with sick children come here to pray for intervention. When they receive their “miracle”, they return to say “thank you” with flowers.
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November 9, 2011 | Ed Foster Jr.
There are two subjects that really spark a fire in the eyes of Patricia Rodríguez Alomá. One is Habana Vieja (Old Havana) in Cuba, and the other is her nonagenarian father, Dr. Rubén Rodríguez Gavaldá. They are both a part of her heritage and her awe.
Patricia is the Director of Planning with the Office of the Historian of Old Havana, the Cuban government office responsible for the ongoing social and physical transformation of a once blighted neighborhood into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. She is also her father’s daughter who inherited the doctor’s enthusiasm and tireless work ethic.
During one of my meetings with the forty-something architect to learn about the work of the Historian’s Office, she struck a parallel to the usefulness of some of the aged buildings she helps resurrect with the active and productive life of her 90-year-old father. Patricia is not one to tell her guests about how buildings and lives were transformed in Habana Vieja. Her lessons quickly become long walking tours, and so it was with her father when she proposed an introduction.
The air was quite cool on that January morning in 2005 as I peered through the arched portal of Convento de Brigida in Old Havana waiting for the couple to arrive. Within minutes I spotted Patricia’s red mane in the distance as she and her father briskly strolled arm-in-arm along Calle Brasil.
“If that’s her dad,” I thought, “he certainly doesn’t appear to have been around for nine decades.”
After introductions were made, two of the hospitable Sisters of St. Bridgid served coffee and cookies in the cozy dining room of the convent. Whether or not it was the presence of the nuns or my colleagues, Dr. Rodríguez Gavaldá must have felt compelled to share his religious beliefs.
“I am agnostic and really don’t identify with any religion. I respect religious people very much and I respect you”, he told my companions, “because it comes from the integrity of your heart. I try to live a moral life and believe in charity for all and malice to none,” he said as he repeated his creed in English as well as Spanish.
With that behind him, he stressed the need for allergy specialists in Cuba and then began using medical terms thay I didn’t fully understand. Some of my companions who are medical professionals seemed to lean on every word as if they were in a classroom. I surmised from his gusto and their attentiveness, the aged pediatrician was right at home.
His impromptu lecture continued for nearly one hour and no question went unanswered.
Dr. Rodríguez Gavaldá reluctantly spoke about himself and his place in the history of research, education and the treatment of immunological diseases in a country where hypersensitivities are prevalent.
As a 12-year-old youngster in the hospital for surgery he set his sights on becoming a physician. He accomplished that goal when he graduated with his doctorate in medicine from the University of Havana in 1941. Soon after he began residency training at a children’s tuberculosis hospital and acquired research skills in the lab of an allergy clinic, but was disheartened that so many who could not afford specialized treatment went without care.
After his wife died in 1955, Dr. Rodríguez Gavaldá applied for and was accepted into the pediatric residency program at The Brooklyn Hospital in New York. It was there he began to believe in the possibility of opening a hospital in Cuba where he could provide medical care for all children – poor or rich.
The political climate at home was shifting dramatically as he worked and studied in New York. Others in his position might have forsaken the uncertainty of life in Cuba, or even delayed their return, but not this ambitious physician. He had a goal.
“I never thought of not returning (to Cuba),” he later wrote, “stripped of all things social and professional, I am Cuban.”
Perhaps it was the revolution or just his determination and humanitarian sprit, but the hospital of his dreams became a reality in 1960 when he helped found the William Solar University Pediatric Hospital. Soon afterward he established the Allergy and Immunology Laboratory at the hospital where he trained other physicians to help in his quest to treat young allergy patients.
In 1967 Dr. Rodríguez Gavaldá was off to Paris supported by a French Government scholarship to further his education in immunology and brush up on the French language he learned in elementary school. That was a good thing too, because a number of years later he would travel to the French capital after returning from Viet Nam where he served on an international tribunal.
As the years passed the doctor and teacher pressed on with his research and discovered new ways of treating juvenile patients despite the scarcity of many modern pharmaceuticals. And every time he made progress he would present his findings at international medical conferences and introduce them into the curriculum at the University of Havana. It seemed to be a constant cycle of learning, treating, teaching and sharing.
He believes deeply in sharing what he has learned. “Knowledge is world heritage. It would immoral to gain knowledge and prevent the flow of history.”
When we met in 2005, Dr. Rodríguez Gavaldá was the current president of the Cuban Society of Medicine and still treating nearly 200 patients each week. Despite a schedule that would seem grueling for a man half his age, he still finds time to stroll the Malecón, dance and visit with his only daughter at least twice each week.
At the conclusion of our three-hour meeting, Patricia and her father left to return to their separate professions – arm-in-arm physically and mentally.
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November 8, 2011 | Ed Foster Jr.
October 22, 2011 | Ed Foster Jr.
September 4, 2011 | Ed Foster Jr.
For nearly all of her ninth grade school year, Raysa Fernandez kept her secret.
It wasn’t until she couldn’t brush her curly blonde locks without pain that she knew she had to tell someone. So, the Cuban teenager confided in her mother about the large lump that was growing in her armpit and the pain she was experiencing.
Raysa’s mother took her to the medical clinic in their hometown of Jagüey Grande, about 100 miles southeast of Havana. The doctors there decided not to remove the mass when they observed its deep roots, but took a sample for biopsy purposes. Three months later, with a detour through the hospital in Mantanzas City, the 16–year–old was admitted to Instituto Nacional de Oncologia y Radiobiologia in Havana.
When she was discharged ten months later, she left without her right shoulder and arm. But, before leaving she made many new friends including Carmen Vallejo who operates a support group for youngsters with cancer in Havana. She also gained an inner strength and a solid determination to learn to do everything she did before with her right arm with her left.
Two years later, in April of 2005, Raysa traveled to Tampa, where Arnold Andrews, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of St. Petersburg made arrangements for the teenager to receive a prosthetic arm. For the second time in one year, Andrews begged and cajoled old friends to raise the necessary funds so that a Cuban child could receive a prosthetic limb.
On May 28, 2005, Raysa returned to Cuba with a new arm and renewed hope.