When I was director of the National Institute of Nephrology in Havana, I had long had an intense interest in doing a sustained study on chronic vascular diseases and their common risk factors, to identify markers and genetic issues related to these conditions. These diseases—the main causes of disability and death worldwide—are a particular burden for poor countries and threaten to cripple their health systems. I hoped to make inroads through research to shape more effective prevention programs. As a doctor, it was something like an unrealized dream.
Then I met Chuck Feeney. After we became friends, he surprised me one day by asking me a curious question: “What would you like to do, what is possible? If you could do something significant, what would it look like?” Chuck immediately took an interest in the study’s idea and helped us to make it as thorough and meaningful as possible.
We chose Cuba’s Isle of Youth because it is a microenvironment that we could easily follow, and studies growing out of it would have long-term meaning about how chronic vascular diseases progress. Nearly 80,000 residents agreed to participate, making ours the world’s first research of its kind in a total population. The study is Cuba’s contribution to regional and global health. Chuck encouraged us throughout the process.
We were invited to present our findings at the World Nephrology Congress in 2009 and submitted a comprehensive article on the work to Nephron, the leading European journal in the field. It was also judged the best paper presented at the 10th Central American and Caribbean Nephrology Congress in 2008. Our model was adapted in El Salvador to study a mysterious kidney disease killing thousands of poor farmworkers in Central and South America, Africa and Asia. At home, the study was awarded the National Grand Prize in health sciences by the Ministry of Public Health and later that of the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
But, most important, we are getting results that will help shape more effective prevention programs for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and hypertension, as well as kidney disease. We hope that our new understandings will lead to a more holistic approach in Cuba to reduce the prevalence, disability and death from these conditions, and offer a good model for other countries.
Because of the U.S. embargo, Chuck and Atlantic’s investments were mostly in professional exchanges, publications and research-related collaborations to help our study become better and more widely understood internationally. Chuck eagerly contributed his experience and relationships in the global community to train the spotlight on kidney disease, and help societies face the health, moral and fiscal challenges it presents. Chuck did not participate in the building of facilities, but his enthusiasm for the study inspired non-U.S. groups to help us with equipment and other inputs critical to analyzing the data being collected.
At heart, Chuck was a catalyst who saw opportunities to support people doing high- caliber work and emerging leaders with underappreciated prospects. He inspired us to have a broader vision than we otherwise would have had, opened the doors to what is possible and made our aspirations a reality. By doing so, he brought global attention to what Cubans were doing in health generally—a highly integrated system that links community-based primary care clinics to hospitals and scientific research centers.
Chuck is truly enamored of the Cuban people and culture, and felt we were undervalued in historical ways and not treated fairly. Atlantic’s contributions to our study were vitally important. But Chuck also emphasized the elimination of misconceptions and diminishing barriers between our two countries. Rather than focusing on historic enmity, Chuck instead saw common concerns, mutual benefit and shared goals. He had no interest in debating sensitive issues from the past. His interest lay solely in Cuba’s successful model for health care and what it meant for the region and the world. That is Chuck Feeney’s great achievement.
— RAÚL HERRERA VALDÉS, MD, PHD, DRSC
Consultant Professor, Institute of Nephrology Full Researcher
Coordinator, ISYS Chronic Vascular Disease Longitudinal Multidisciplinary Research