angels of mercy
One thing that puts a smile on Cuban doctor Elpidio Lopez's face is to hear his patients boast "udokotela wami lo" - meaning this is my doctor.
"The thing that has kept me at Themba Hospital [Mpumalanga's biggest hospital in Kabokweni, White River] for 12 years is the appreciation I get from my patients and the community.
"To them I am a hero who came into their village when they needed help the most," said Lopez.
South Africa and Cuba signed an agreement to share medical skills and services immediately after liberation in 1994.
Lopez was among the first group of Cuban doctors who came to work in the country's short-staffed rural hospitals in 1996.
Although he would like to return to Cuba some day, that is presently not an option.
"I love my job. Every day I get stopped by a patient who either wants to explain their case or just wants to thank me for helping them. Forgive me if I am boasting but I think I am one of the most famous people here."
The doctor wasn't exaggerating. When Sowetan visited him at his work, he was constantly stopped by people who simply wanted to greet him - or just to find out how he was.
The hospital's chief executive, Mduduzi Shabangu, agreed that Lopez was highly popular and adored by his colleagues and patients.
"He loves and respects his job. People want to be treated by him because of that. As one of three senior and specialist doctors, his experience and opinion are valued. He was twice named the best doctor at the hospital by his colleagues," said Shabangu.
Lopez is not the only Cuban doctor who has gained his patients respect.
Another remarkable man is doctor Rusbel Medina, who came here as a family physician more than a decade ago. Today he is the head of the intensive care unit at Witbank Hospital.
"I have enjoyed working in this country. I cannot say I do not miss home because I do. But as a doctor you have to put the lives of your patients first. I took an oath to help those in need.
"I will stay in South Africa for as long as I am needed.
"When I came here the environment was different. The language barrier was a huge problem, but I have since learnt to speak basic words and phrases in isiZulu. This helps me to communicate with patients. Some of them are shocked to hear me speak their language," he said.
Provincial programme coordinator Kuki Khambule said: "Cuban doctors have helped us address the shortage of doctors in our province. We are happy with their work and commitment."
lAbout 450 foreign doctors, mainly from Cuba, were contracted by the government in 1996.
Mpumalanga was allocated 13 while the rest were sent to other provinces. Nine are still working in government hospitals while four opted out of their contracts. They are still in South Africa but in private practice.