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Medford couple bound for Cuba to meet with health care workers

When Allan and Catherine Henrichs started planning their trip to Cuba in July, they didn’t realize they would become unlikely ambassadors for the U.S. as it softens relations with its former enemy.

The Medford couple work in the laboratory at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford and are joining a delegation of health care workers who will visit the country starting Jan. 9, 2015, as part of the People to People International program.

“We’re not visiting the government,” said 60-year-old Catherine. “We’re visiting the people.”

President Barack Obama recently announced the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than a half century of often strained relations with the country’s leader, Fidel Castro.

The Henrichses' trip will be tightly controlled by the Cuban government, and since neither of the two speaks Spanish, they will have a guide with them.

“You’ve got to be flexible,” Catherine said. “The Cuban government can change its mind at any time.”

Allan said, “I’m hoping we can have a couple of evenings on our own.” But he said he’s not sure whether they can go sightseeing without a guide because their itinerary is carefully scripted.

Despite the impression of Cuba as being a poor country, the Henrichses say it does have a fairly good medical system, though it doesn’t have all the sophisticated equipment found at most American hospitals.

“Probably more people have health coverage in Cuba,” said 61-year-old Allan, who is a technical specialist in the microbiology laboratory. “Health care here is more technologically advanced."

When they talk to health care workers in Cuba, they plan to tell them about the services offered here in Medford.

Catherine, who is a technical specialist in the special chemistry laboratory, points to a sophisticated machine that she uses for testing blood and said she would be surprised if there were many similar devices available in Cuba.

Cuba does have an extensive health care outreach program in Latin America, she said. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government rejected Cuba’s offer to send doctors, nurses and supplies to help the victims.

Lauren Van Sickle, spokeswoman for Asante, said, “It’s really encouraging to see this couple put people first.”

While the Henrichses aren’t officially representing Asante on their trip, Van Sickle said the hospital does encourage employees to donate their time to the community, even if that is helping the community in Cuba.

“It’s still a great thing that they’re doing,” she said. 

The Henrichses, who are paying their own way to Cuba, have a pretty packed itinerary for their eight-day trip.

They will take a 45-minute flight from Miami, Fla., to Havana on Jan. 9.

After their arrival, they will be taken on a bus tour through Revolution Square, where Fidel Castro and others have held political rallies.

A few days later, they will meet with Dr. Rosa Lopez Oceguera, professor at the University of Havana in the Center of Hemispherical Studies and U.S. Studies. Oceguera will focus on Cuba’s health programs in Venezuela, Haiti, Guatemala and Bolivia.

Over the following days, they will meet with various health organizations, including the Cuban Society of Social Workers in Health Care and the Centro Nacional de Educacion Sexual, which promotes understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues. Marielo Castro, daughter of Cuban leader Raul Castro, heads the center, and the Henrichses say they look forward to meeting with her.

“We’re just going over to talk to people and tell them what heath care is like in the U.S.,” Allan said.

One of the most requested items friends have asked the Henrichses to bring back are Cuban cigars, though the couple doesn’t smoke. They have heard they can bring up to $100 worth of merchandise back to the U.S.

“Smoking is bad for you,” Allan said.

“For the $100, I’d rather have the rum,” Catherine said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.

Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center employees Catherine and Allan Henrichs are going to Cuba as part of the People to People International Program. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell