Learning to live in a community

STUDENTS FROM THE UNITED STATES GRADUATE FROM LATIN AMERICAN SCHOOL OF MEDICINE (ELAM)
Learning to live in a community

PATRICIA CÁCERES

MEETING young people from the United States who have decided to study in an underdeveloped country is quite unusual. And the fact that they are doing so free of charge, in a nation whose social system Washington has attempted to overthrow using all possible means – including a brutal economic, commercial and financial blockade – is really surprising.

Such is the case for 40 youth from the United States, many from marginalized communities, who recently graduated as General Medicine practitioners from the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba.

The fundamental mission of this important center of higher learning, founded by Fidel in 1998, is the preparation of doctors with a strong scientific, ethical and humanistic foundation, who will be able to respond to the most urgent needs of their countries.

To date, 10,000 youth from Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States, Africa, Asia and Oceania have graduated.

In the case of the students from the United States, the application process is administered by Pastors for Peace. The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) collects and analyzes applications.

In a first-world country like the U.S. less than half of the students who apply are admitted to medical school and less than 3% of immigrants

The cost of the many years of training required amounts to around $200,000, a debt that a low income family would be paying off for 20 years.

A PEOPLE’S DOCTOR

Kereese Gayle, from the state of Georgia, arrived in Cuba six years ago, driven by the desire to study, and see, medicine from a different point of view.

“The profession in the United States is very commercialized and too focused on technology. I wanted to learn how to diagnose and treat people with my hands, my ears and eyes, with a more human approach.

“At the same time, it was an opportunity to acquire the Spanish language, since over there, there are many Latinos who need personalized and more reassuring attention, in their own language.”

For Kereese and other students from the U.S. the years of study are unforgettable, though not easy. “The hardest thing,” she said, “has been being away from my family, and at times finding it difficult to communicate.”

“Before moving to Georgia, my family lived in New Orleans and my first year here was the year of Hurricane Katrina. It was a very frustrating time for me, since my family was there and for a long time I didn’t even know where they had gone.

“But if I had to do it again, I would still choose Cuba, because in addition to receiving excellent instruction, my Cuban friends have taught me lot about solidarity, about fraternity and I have really learned to live in a community.”

Once she returns to the U.S. Kereese plans to work in the South, where the need for doctors is greater.

“I would like to share my knowledge with the needy, in a country where health care is still not a right, where millions of people lack services.”

HELPING THE FORGOTTEN

With his diploma in hand, Michael Howard also recalls leaving Georgia to begin his studies in Cuba.

“I had graduated in Biochemistry and had the option of working in that field. But, on one occasion, Reverend Lucius Walker came to my school to talk with us about ELAM and I fell in love with his mission, his humanitarian goals.

“Some friends and relatives asked me not to go, but I shared, and share, the values of this project that prepares us to help whoever may need our help, without considering the money they may offer us in exchange,” he explained.

According to the young man, following his dream has not been without sacrifice, “I have an eight-month-old brother and a nephew just a few weeks old who I haven’t seen yet. But it’s been worth all the effort, because thanks to Cuba, I can proudly say that I am my family’s doctor.”

Nevertheless, he added, graduating doesn’t mean having reached the end of his professional studies, he added, “From now on, it will be up to me to continue my development and help the forgotten, the poor in my country, confronting a health system based on the market, in which the patient is relegated, unfortunately, to a secondary position.”

AT HOME

Another of the graduates, Thana Parker, from Southern California, is infinitely grateful to the Cuban government for having provided her this opportunity. “If the ELAM didn’t exist, I never would have been able to become a doctor, because it’s too expensive in my country and I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Even though she was not able to be at her mother’s side when she died a year ago, Thana said that she is happy. “She was able to see me practicing my profession a bit, she was proud of me becoming a doctor, something I never could have accomplished in California.”

According to the young woman, Cuba has filled the vacuum left by her mother’s death and has comforted her with love, friendship, a new family, a home, “I don’t feel like I’m here on a visit; I feel at home.”

When I return to my country, I hope to work in a clinic or doctor’s office serving patients free of charge or at a very low cost.

“MATURED AS A PERSON”

For Malik Massac, traveling to another country to study a profession at this level meant foregoing the comforts of a home, a well paying job and a fiancée, in no way insignificant for an immigrant from the island of St. Thomas, who initially pursued the “American dream.”

“Despite these conveniences, in my heart I had always wanted to do something more important, be a doctor. At that time, I was starting to study for the exams in the United States, although I was aware that it would be expensive and mean going into debt.”

Learning about the quality of education in Cuba, the excellence of its medicine and ELAM’s goal of building solidarity made the decision easy for Malik.

“Cuban doctors are doing so much all over the world, with so little, it was impressive to me. I have so much respect for people who make sacrifices to help the poor and I wanted to be part of that.”

“I needed to acquire values and experience a reality very much in contrast to the United States, where not only the poor, but also many working people, cannot afford medical care. They don’t have enough money to support themselves and take care of themselves as well.”

After six years of arduous effort, Malik believes he is reaching his goal. A few days earlier, he recalled, “Coming out of the polyclinic, my shoe broke and a terrible downpour ensued. I didn’t have an umbrella and I had to wait 45 minutes under a tree, but, no matter, I was still happy.”

“Cuba has allowed me to mature as a person; it has allowed me to erase any traces of superficiality and self-interest; it has made me appreciate the little things, life itself. I think I have changed for the better, like a grape which must ferment many years before becoming wine, or coal turning into a diamond.”

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