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Naela´s Long Walk Home

Cuban Doctors and a Radiation-sterilized Hip Saved Her Leg, and Changed Her Life

Staff Report

3 November 2003
Naela and her mother, Josefa

Naela and her mother, Josefa, have lived in Havana for the past five years. (Credit: L. Wedekind/IAEA). More photos...

Havana, Cuba -- When she was 16 and just out of art school, Naela Piloto Alameda´s life turned upside down. Today she’s back on her feet, and looking faithfully ahead. Someday soon, she’s determined to walk back into her home in Bayamo, a provincial capital on Cuba´s far southeastern coast known for its traditional horse-drawn carriages. She just doesn´t know when that will be.

Naela, now 21, almost lost a leg five years ago when doctors found a malignant tumour. The only alternative to leg amputation, doctors said, was a hip replacement, the first of its kind in Cuba. Naela decided to make history. She let surgeons replace her hip with one donated to Cuba´s Tissue Bank, established in the 1990s with IAEA support at the Frank Pais International Orthopedic Hospital in Havana. The hip was sculpted to fit Naela´s teenage frame and then - like so many medical tissues and supplies - sterilized for safety´s sake by gamma irradiation before the operation.

Naela´s walking without pain today, and finding it easier to smile. She and her mother, Josefa, have had a tough time over the past four to five years. An emotional, as well as physical, rollercoaster.

"Naela was 15 when she finished technical school, in art and sculpture. Then during the next year, we learned she would need the operation," Josefa reflects. "We were happy doctors had the ability to help her." The operation went well, yet after-effects linger.

"Naela didn´t want to see anyone for years," Josefa recalls. "She closed herself off, from friends, from parties, and stayed in her room. You´re the first stranger she´s wanted to speak with in a long, long time."

The isolation was partly rooted in a reality all too common in developing countries. For the operation, Josefa and Naela had to leave family and friends 900 kilometres behind in Bayamo. They were moved to Havana where the medical facilities are at hand to help orthopedic patients. The growing city´s housing shortage and their limited income meant they had to move to an apartment shared with another family. They´re still living there.

"I´m doing much better now," Naela says, holding her walking cane. "But doctors say I still shouldn´t walk stairs or do a lot of other things. It´s frustrating." She spends most of her time these days reading, listening to favorite music, or painting. When she can, she likes to go to concerts or the pool – "But not to swim," she adds quickly. "I don´t like swimming or the hot sun that much. Just to watch."

Why did she decide to tell her story to a stranger? She thinks it´s time. "I always liked to meet new people," she explains shyly, "and I want to learn new things."

Dr. Eddy Sanchez Noda, one of Naela’s doctors, is optimistic about her future. The main problem is that Naela´s muscles are not yet strong enough for stairs or other strenuous activities, he explains. She needs more intensive and frequent follow-up care and physical therapy. Unfortunately, the hospital´s resources limit her chances to get it, though they´re trying to do as much as they can.

"We think it´s best for her to stay in Havana, closer to the hospital and get the checkups and treatment that we can provide," he says.

Naela is grateful for the medical care and help she´s received. But she would rather be close to home in Bayamo, with her grandmother, sister, family, friends. Her dreams, and determination, shine through: "My situation is difficult, and many people help me. I want to get stronger. Strong enough to be running and dancing again soon." -- Lothar Wedekind, IAEA Division of Public Information.

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