Place Holds Us: Frida Kahlo and Coyoacan

In May of last year I had the privilege of visiting Frida Kahlo’s house in Coyoacan, a leafy  art-filled adobe residential suburb of outer Mexico City.

Many of us are familiar with her striking self-portraits with her bold eyebrows and colourful peasant costumes. We know she had a withered leg from polio at age 6, followed by a horrific bus collision at age 18, which left her severely injured, requiring continuous surgical revisions and prostheses. We know about her famous and also torturous relationship with the artist and mural painter Diego Rivera, whom she met as a teen and who was intimately involved with her from the time she was 21 until her death in 1954 at 47.

In Frida’s accident the bus was T-boned by a trolley car, and she was both crushed and pierced by a metal handrail: her pelvis, spine, ribs, and leg were all badly broken. Already familiar with deformity and the rigour and humiliations of therapy, she was to endure some 32 separate operations and years of plaster casts and corsets.

Frida took up oil painting during the painful tedium of rehabilitation and from then on painting was at the core of what her biographer Hayden Herrera describes as her “battle for life”. In the words of her friend, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, ” The struggle of two Fridas was in her always, the struggle between one dead Frida and one Frida that was alive.” Along with painting- frank, impassioned, diligent, macabre,-  came a renewed and almost desperate love for nature, animals, colours, fruit, anything beautiful and positive.

In 1950, ill with vertebral osteomyelitis and limb gangrene, she spent a year in hospital. This year too was full of painting, guests, jokes, treatments, and Rivera, who spent most nights in an adjoining room. A friend said, “We healthy people who went to visit her came away comforted, morally fortified, we all needed her.”

I have always been drawn to her intense and fascinating self-portraits, while the details of her struggles, physical and emotional, are almost unbearable.

While I had seen pictures of her house in Coyoacan, with its bold earthy colours, extensive folk art and archaeological sculptures, what really struck me when I visited was the way the walled courtyard and interconnected cobalt-blue adobe walls embraced a whole world of trees and the most intimate objects of her domestic and imaginative life. Frida Kahlo was born and died within those sheltering walls, it is quite extraordinary. One can see her small bed and toys, dolls, paintbrushes, folk-art skeletons, kitchen plates and embroidered shawls. I felt very nurtured by the high thick walls, the flat colours, the warm sun, the ancient humming relics, the simple and beautiful handmade objects, the contrasting textures and vivid colours of her clothing. It was as though her desperate craving for a sustaining life force allowed her to select only the most potent of objects and people to surround her.

The watermelon painting shown above was her last painting. She wrote the inscription 8 days before she died, Viva la Vida.

Reina la sandia. Viva la Vida.

Cuban Health Data (Datos de salud cubano)

#numbersspeak #socialistsuccess?

Statistic (WHO) Australia Cuba Angola
Population 23,343 11,266 21,472
% Population under 15 19 16 47
Under 5 mortality per 1000 l.b. 4 6 167
Maternal Mortality per 100,000 l.b. 6 80 460
Gross National Income p.p. $42,540 $18,520 $6770
Health expenditure p.p. $4068 $405 $212
Top 3 causes death under 5 Other, congenital, prematurity Other, congenital, prematurity Other, resp infection, diarrhoea
Male Obesity aged 20+ 25% 13% 3.8%

So I am back in Australia and I am puzzling and puzzling over Cuba.
I have included Angola in this table because my Cuban mentor, Dr Pedro Mestre Villavicencio, is there now, as part of Cuba’s large overseas medical work force.

I hope you will puzzle with me (without losing sleep) Numbers do matter, because they allow us to see the wood for the trees, and to ask the big picture questions that we need to ensure we are using our resources (money, life energy, time) wisely.

How does Cuba achieve such low infant mortality for such low cost?

Why is the maternal mortality figure not as impressive?

Is Cuba a ‘developing country’?

What can the ‘west’ learn from Cuba?

Cuban Salsa

Here, to honour my campaign promise, a photo of myself in the pink polka dotted skirt (sorry Heather, neither on bonnet of red chevy nor smoking a cigar!)


And now that i can upload, a few short clips of salsa throughout the country:

at MayDay afters party

at International Solidarity Conference

Lastly, two of me after my second lesson in Trinidad. Forgive the dodgy spectator camerawork but do note how smoothly we rotate 90 degrees so that we are climbing up the wall 🙂

I am so sorry that I have no picture or footage of Hermes and Julian/a, the dance school Manager and Ballerina/Transvestite from Baracoa from whom we had our last three lessons. Of course latin dancing in partners is easier for women than for men (you will notice how expert Juan was in throwing me where he wanted me), but we did conquer most of the standard contortions during this period or at least managed to turn in the right directions. As for the tricky cat’s-cradle arm-work that we have seen at some of the nightclubs, we were like, … really??

Ultrasound courses, William Soler Hospital for Children, Havana Cuba

#thirstforlearning #seeinside #bangforbucks

I know some of you think I have just been in Cuba learning salsa and bongo and double bass and having a generally fantastic time.

However I will have you know that for the past week I have had my head down preparing and teaching two one-day courses in bedside ultrasound to senior staff at the William Soler Hospital for Sick Children (HWS).



The courses alternated theory and practice in bedside ultrasound in the context of a hospital with most subspecialties but very little equipment. They were attended by very enthusiastic paediatricians, neonatologists, and intensivists (who run the pointy end of emergency care), as well as by the two radiologists. The afternoon sessions were hands on with various paediatric patients including sessions in intensive care.

The radiologists are thrilled about the quality second hand Sonosite machine, which is probably the first point of care ultrasound machine in Cuba. As the two radiologists currently provide 24hour on call support, ‘week about’, anything that increases the ability of onsite specialists to make safe ultrasound supported decisions is in radiologists interests, and they are therefore happy to provide ongoing support during the training in period. However, as one of them commented to me while the rest of the group scrambled for an opportunity to “see inside” various patients with and without pathology, “Its easy to see what is grossly abnormal. It takes years to know what is normal”.

Again I am astounded by the value of bedside ultrasound, which is truly revolutionary in its clinical impact. I have absolutely no doubt that this machine will expedite decision making, improve diagnostic accuracy, increase procedural accuracy, and decrease patient suffering. One of the participants could not stop her tears as she hugged me during the final debrief and certificate session. “This will save children’s lives!” she kept saying.

As you have heard, Cuba has a strong health service and a commitment to international health and research, and the team at HWS are keen to record their bedside ultrasound usages, indications, progress, and any hiccups which may be of value as a prototype for introduction in other resource poor nations.


Thanks again to all who have supported this project and my fanaticism, particularly to my husband Frank and parents Derek and Sue, US colleagues Kong and David, Sonosite teachers and advocates Lynette Hassall and Nicola Keeley and team, Mick Carr and Paddy Crumlin and the Maritime Union of Australia for the many years of high level generosity to the William Soler Childrens Hospital, and my other friends and donors particularly Raquel Redmond/ Chroma Australia. Also thanks to Dr Pedro Villavicencia Mestre, Dr Regla Broche Candá, and Dr Mercedes Milián Jo from HWS, and the Cuban Ambassador and Consul in Australia, who supported my ideas and helped this first stage come to fruition. I am keen to continue supporting this project in Cuba and elsewhere, particularly if it involves more music and dance, (!!!) so expect to hear more from me.



Andres y Serena: a home visit with cuban medicos

#friendshipsXbarriers #internationalmedicalsolidarity

SerenaAndres SerenaAndres2 You have met Andres before because I met him on the clown course. He is a paediatric oncological surgeon and we made friends. Sien and I were lucky enough to be invited to their house in a barrio south of the airport 25 km from the centre of town. mesa We had fried fish, maize-battered pineapple, plantains stuffed with jamon, potatoes with a delicious piquant sauce, green beans and lettuce, tomato salad, and pineapple cake. It was some of the best food we have eaten in our visit to Cuba. Andres is a professor of paediatric oncology surgery. A person in his position earns the same as any other government employee, something of the order of 60 euro per month, and significantly less than anyone who works with tourists, the main source of currency flow in Cuba. His wife Serena works in family medicine, and they have two lovely children. They are unusual in speaking ENglish relatively well, because they both like languages and meeting other people. They are active in the local church and Andres also has other hobbies including apiotherapy and other biomedicines, which became a Cuban specialty due to the effects of the US blockade on medicinal access. As a paediatric oncology surgeon he is passionate about his work and his research, and enjoys close relationships with the international community including Dr Rao from St Judes in USA. When Andres finished medical school he was sent to Nicaragua. He was very proud to work as a doctor there, where the people were so much poorer and the children suffering from malnutrition and disease. Then the US/Contra stuff started and things became dangerous and the Cuban government withdrew its medical staff. In the early 90s when the Soviet Union fell the Cubans had nothing but revolutionary zeal, which was transformed into a collective determination to make do with nothing, to be resourceful and independent, and to share with one another. ANyone who had a car was fined for not giving anyone else a lift who flagged them. The ‘line’system still works, and works well- old cars go back and forth across Havana in straight lines, and people flag them down and pay a small amount to travel [all together]. DUring the special period Andres lived in his outer barrio near where he is now, in a crumbling house with 19th century columns, and he cycled 25 km each way to work and back. Andres said that a few years ago, the government changed the policy so that doctors who wanted to take advantage of higher medical salaries overseas could. After much discussion with his family, he resigned from the children’s hospital and took a position in Trinidad and Tobago, aiming to improve his families living standards and opportunities. However after 2 years of ups and downs of various sorts, he and Serena have concluded that being in Cuba with his family and working with a quality team, is worth more than living abroad alone. He believes this will also happen with some other doctors. Political and social education are important elements of the CUban governments maintenance of many aspects of life, and all Cubans are told that the system of equality and social support that they enjoy, the quality of human life, is important (free education and health including a careful system of preventative health and dentistry). He also still generally gets to attend paediatric oncology conferences, although his international colleagues pay for him, as such a fare would be inconceivable for the family. The house has few mod cons: no dishwasher, no plasma screen, patchy dialup internet and the neighbour bangs on the door to say that the town water is back on, so they had better make the most of it. Andres and his wife sang and played the guitar for us. We are very fond of them and hope to stay connected.

DICO aka Departamento de la Investigacion del Crimenales Operaciones, aka me and my detective

I;ve probably spelled this wrong but I only have an hour of wifi. Did you hear my purse was recovered? While we were in Baracoa our landlady, herself a lawyer, had a call from the police wanting to talk to me. A few dozen back and forth llamadas later I am back in Santiago and going out to DICO (which my taxi driver tells me is Cuba;s equivalent of the CIA) to talk to my personal detective. I got my pink purse back, sin effectivo (without cash) but con tarjetas (with all my cards). Luckily, one card didn’t work here anyhow and although Frank had given me an Australian number to phone to cancel my Australian visa card, they had been closed the one time I had been able to be at a phone cubicle. The dear purse had had such an avventura and was only slightly worse for wear (one clip doesn’t clip) probably due to having been run over following its escape from my falda (skirt/lap) and between the slats of the horse cart. My detective was very interested in interviewing me (in Spanish) about the function of the various cards (why did I bring my hospital ID cards, San DIego library photocopy cash card and GO card to Cuba??). He showed me where it had been found and I remembered the bump precisely. How did he track me down? Tourists live parallel lives to Cubans. He had my photo from immigration blown up in front of him (I was VERY tired, I tried to explain), and every place we stay at registers us with our passport details. When you buy a mobile phone or internet card your passport details are also registered. I had a FILE, but I don’t think it included the things I have managed to do despite still being on a tourist visa. My detective would need to speak English and read blogs with hashtags for Cuba, if he really wanted the low down on 56 year old women who drink lemonade, learn bongo, and bring medical equipment to children’s hospitals. My detective showed me, not without some pride, that on that day there were 22,000 Canadians, 435 Dutch, and 246 Australians in Cuba. Another folder on his desktop said, “Interpol”. My detective was deservedly proud (orgullo, not orgullosa, which is arrogant, my taxi driver explained on the way home) of getting my purse and cards back to its rightful owner and of managing all those tourists with a dialup computer.

BTW DICO also look after cases that concern extranjeros, (foreigners) in case you are wondering how a lost purse got to the CIA.

PS, finder, thank you… xxx