Cuba Culture

Infomed - Old Computers Find Second Life in Cuba

Posted May 01, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

By Kellie Schmitt | Mercury News

When Palo Alto handyman Dudley Lewis sees old computers on the Peninsula, he thinks of all the potential they could have—in Cuba.

“Here I am, running into people all the time with old computers,’’ he said.

“I started collecting computers and I would get truckloads.’‘

Lewis is part of a group of local volunteers who gather valley leftovers and donate them for the Cuban medical community.

“I was really shocked at how many lives you could save with such little equipment,’’ he said.

The Santa Clara-based group, USA-Cuba InfoMed, formed nine years ago to support Infomed, a health information system in the island country. The goal was to donate computers to help develop a network for medical information and databases.

The group selected Cuba because it was impressed with the outreach medical work done by Cuban doctors, such as staffing South African hospitals and treating Chernobyl victims.

Lewis was collecting computers on his own to donate to local non-profit groups when he heard about USA-Cuba InfoMed and decided to focus his efforts there. Since he had volunteered time with Central-American medical missions, he thought the Cuba program would be a good fit.

He is one of about 15 volunteers who collect computers and occasionally travel to Cuba to check their implementation, part of the requirements of the group’s Commerce Department license. His role has been instrumental because of his ties to the Peninsula community. As a handyman in Palo Alto, Woodside, Menlo Park and Atherton, Lewis makes firsthand connections with some of the valley’s movers and shakers—many of whom have old computers to donate.

One company sees the program as a win-win, eliminating waste while helping a non-profit. Connie Tritt, a managing partner at Abbott, Stringham & Lynch, said the firm joined the effort because recycling old computers is more environmentally friendly than tossing them in a dumpster.

Since USA-Cuba InfoMed’s inception, it has donated about 3,000 computers, according to founder David Wald.

“A lot of the companies have no interest in Cuba, but they’re perfectly happy to donate computers for medical uses,’’ Wald said. “We had no idea it would last more than a few months when we got started.’‘

Marcia Garcia, a doctor at Hospital Calixto Garcia in Havana, said the group’s donations have helped Infomed aid Cuba’s medical community.

“Thanks to this institution, doctors have the opportunity to connect health professionals in our country and worldwide through e-mail and through the Web,’’ she said in Spanish in an interview from Cuba. “As you can see, the role of Infomed is very important in the medical development of Cuba.’‘

However, as the Infomed network grows in Cuba, the demand grows for newer and more powerful computers. That has become a problem because the Bay Area group’s license limits the power of the computers it can donate, Wald said. Many of the computers it receives are too advanced to comply with the government requirements, he said.

As USA-Cuba InfoMed lobbies Congress to adjust the limits, it’s also working on a different mission: connecting Cuban doctors with educational resources in the Bay Area.

Infomed Director Pedro Urra González traveled to Silicon Valley several years ago to make contacts. He met Russ Altman, a doctor who directs the Center for Biomedical Computation at Stanford University.

Altman has invited González to give a presentation at a workshop at Stanford in September called “The Cubans are Connecting.’‘

“I found him to be well-informed and interested in using medical informatics technology to improve the health of the Cuban people, and so I was impressed,’’ Altman said in an e-mail from Florence, where he is on sabbatical. “I am very sorry that political considerations have led to restrictions on the types of personal computers that can be donated to Cuba, because I think that without much risk to our national security we could bring lots of goodwill and good health to our neighbor, Cuba.’‘

As for Lewis, he sees the value in the Cuba donations as more than the medical benefits. While there, he has established many friendships and hopes he’s served as a goodwill ambassador to the Cuban people.

He’s working on a documentary, “Citizen Diplomacy,’’ about his experiences working with the computer donations and the people he’s met along the way.

Lewis plans to return every year—during the Northern California winter, when the rain slows down his handyman business.

“It’s better to be in Cuba,’’ he said with a smile.

Contact Kellie Schmitt at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or (650) 688-7558.

Member Comments

On May 01, 2004, publisher wrote:

Sounds like a great program.

Send me an email if you are working on a similar project and I’ll post it here.