By HARVEY RICE | HOUSTON CHRONICLE

When Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas was ushered into a former naval academy with badly faded paint on this island nation last week, she wasn’t prepared for what she found.

The revelation that more than 100 U.S. students are enrolled in a Cuban medical school surprised Thomas, who made a fact-finding trip to the country last week.

Thomas and her contingent, in Cuba to learn how Cubans prepare for hurricanes, were introduced to medical students from Boston, New York, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

“They are all just as American as they can be and they love what they are doing and are very excited about the programs they are in,” Thomas said.

500 full scholarships

The Latin American School of Medicine has 500 slots for U.S. students that provide full-ride scholarships, including room and board and a small monthly stipend, but only 115 are enrolled.

Although the demand for such a program is potentially great, few students are taking advantage of the offer for a free medical education. The Association of American Medical Colleges says the shortage of U.S. doctors is worsening and that medical students are graduating with a median debt of more than $120,000.

The challenge of taking classes in Spanish and living in a poor country without the amenities are too much for some, said Jose Regino Perez-Polo, a Cuban-American and chairman of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, the oldest medical school in Texas.

“To some extent they see it as a program with political intent,” said Regino Perez-Polo, who has traveled to Cuba to help talented Cuban scientists get better training.

Program began in 2001

For the qualified who are willing to learn Spanish, like Kerriann Minott, 26, of Piscataway, N.J., the school offers a quality medical education that can lead to a residency at a U.S. hospital.

Of the 17 students who have graduated since U.S. students were first accepted into the six-year program in 2001, three have been accepted to residencies in hospitals in New York and New Mexico.

The rest are working in hospitals while studying for the three examinations required for students who graduate from foreign medical schools, said Lucius Walker, who heads the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization/Pastors for Peace.

Spanish a challenge

Walker said that despite the hurdles, the number of students involved in the program is growing. He said 17 are scheduled to graduate at the end of this semester.

Minott was unable to speak a word of Spanish when she arrived in Cuba a few months ago. She’s been studying Spanish for six weeks and is still struggling, but is confident she’ll be able to handle instruction in Spanish when she begins her first year in the fall.

“At first I was like, ‘Cuba? I don’t know,’ ” when her father told her about the program. But she became convinced after doing research.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Minott said.

Cuba founded the Latin American School of Medicine in 1999 to help poor countries in Africa and Latin America address a severe shortage of physicians.

During a visit to Cuba by the Congressional Black Caucus in June 2000, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told then-Cuban President Fidel Castro about the severe shortage of doctors in his home state.

“Every county I represent is classified as medically under­-served,” Thompson said. He said two students from Mississippi are applying to enter the Cuban school next year.

Screenings and warnings

Castro made the offer. He made the offer twice more over the next six months until finally, Walker recalled, “It hit me like a ton of bricks … I said to my staff, ‘This is our responsibility.’ ”

IFCO began screening applicants and sent the first eight students to Cuba, but the program got off to a rocky start. The first group wasn’t vetted properly, nor were they warned about the difficulties of living in a Third World country.

Walker said applications are now tightly screened and amply warned about the difficulties awaiting them.