Osmel Pimienta Morales was 28 years old, full of life, and working in Cuba’s tourism sector — a dream job on an island where the average person endures harsh conditions. He was a bartender in tourist hotels in Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo off the island’s north-central coast.
That’s when the accident happened.
Going downhill on a motorcycle, a tire exploded. He broke his back and was left a paraplegic. A while later, he started to suffer from nose bleeds and was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Doctors believe he got hepatitis C, which almost killed him, from a blood transfusion.
“I used to take 25 pills a day. Today I take only four,” said Pimienta Morales, who had a liver transplant at Jackson Memorial Hospital in February, a month after he was put on the list of people who urgently needed a transplant.
“Every 15 days they took several liters of water out of my stomach. I was in a coma several times,” he said.
Now 45, Pimienta Morales came to the United States in March 2016 thanks to a visa request filed by his mother, who lives in Hialeah.
In Cuba, he had a little farm, and although he could not work the land, he had others helping him and sold what he produced. His U.S. visa arrived just when his medical condition was worsening.
Still, he tries to remain upbeat: “I try to learn from all of my problems, overcome them. Something bad happens, I don’t complain.”
Today, he feels well and much stronger. He exercises in the gym run by the The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. He has joined several of the center’s research projects on paralysis and has gained a lot of independence. He now does a lot of things for himself.
He has a job now, his first in the United States: He works part time at an Amazon warehouse near the Dolphin Mall. The job is both his biggest joy — and his biggest challenge.
“Today they had me identifying pallets” of products,” he said. “I try to do the best I can.”
His biggest problem is the time it takes him to get to and from work. He uses a service for the handicapped, but the commute takes five hours. His problems are compounded by the old and heavy wheelchair he uses.
“It’s 10 years old. I brought it from Cuba,” he said.
That’s why The Miami Project nominated him for Wish Book, the program organized each holiday season by the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald to assist members of the community who need help.
A lighter wheelchair, like the TiLite brand, TRA model, would be a great help. It would be more comfortable, and it weighs only 20 pounds; his current model weighs 45 pounds.
“It would be like moving up from a beater to a Mercedes-Benz,” he said.
Several companies sell the TiLite model, but Pimienta Morales suggested Ability Medical Supply in Pompano Beach, because its owner is also disabled and knows what's best for someone in his condition.
“A new wheelchair would give him more independence and many job opportunities,” said Scott Roy, with the The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
Pimienta Morales could also use a hand-control system for a vehicle. He bought a van but wants to change to a smaller car.
“Coming to the United States has been a blessing. I feel like a person again, physically and mentally,” Pimienta Morales said.
He says he is ready to be useful and eventually wants to give back some of the blessings he has received.
“I was really born again. If I had not come, I would have died,” he said.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com.