By Charlie Smith | Greenwood Commonwealth
Conditions at medical school in Cuba more closely resemble summer camp than a modern university.
“Things are very simple,” says Akua Brown, a Californian studying medicine in Havana. “You stay in a room with about eight to 18 other people. You share bunkbeds. You share a bathroom with the whole floor.”
They don’t have cars. School buses are the most popular form of locomotion.
There’s no air conditioning, and the breakfast menu never varies: bread and milk.
Despite big lifestyle adjustments, Brown and another student at the Latin American School of Medicine told an audience at Mississippi Valley State University Saturday that the chance to become a doctor outweighs any negatives.
“I have tremendous respect for the doctors and the medical students who work in Cuba,” Brown said. “They work very hard for very little pay. There, being a doctor doesn’t mean you have a fancy house and drive a Mercedes Benz. It’s because you care about your community, and you care about the people around you.”
Brown and Keasha Guerrier, a 23-year-old New Yorker, are both about to enter their fourth year of medical school, which is paid for completely by the Cuban government.
Guerrier said Americans have a skewed image of Cuba and its communist government.
“In my experience, it could be likened to a small town, the whole country, in terms of the warmth of the people, the hospitality,” she said.
Students need science coursework but not a bachelor’s degree to enter. They must be between 18 and 30 and commit to coming back to practice medicine in poor areas in the United States.
Ellen Bernstein is associate director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, which handles admissions for the Cuban scholarship program.
She said they don’t consider MCATs, the entrance exam most U.S. medical school require, and have no firm GPA requirement.
“We’re in a position where if we had 500 qualified students, we could accept them all,” Bernstein said.
The school is approved by the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, which must approve all foreign doctors.
Cuba opened it as a training opportunity for foreign students in 1998 in an old naval academy.
Students from 30 nations now attend, including about 125 from the United States.
From her first visit, Bernstein realized it was something special.
“We saw all these Nicaraguan students wearing their white lab coats and carrying around their anatomy textbooks, and we just thought, ‘Wow! Wow!’” she said. “There’s just not any other place in the world where these young people would have been given that kind of opportunity.”
The entire program is in Spanish and lasts six years, seven if you need one year of Spanish language courses.
Brown knew Spanish going in. Guerrier had taken Spanish in school but had to sharpen her conversational skills during her first year.
Students do classroom work the first two years and then do rotations for four years in a hospital. Graduates must pass a seven-hour multiple choice test after graduation before starting residencies in the United States.
About 20 potential medical students attended the conference at Valley Saturday.
Brandon Butler of Jackson wasn’t looking forward to living in a room with 18 people, but the thought of a free medical education was very appealing.
He graduated this spring from Mississippi State with a degree in biology and Spanish, so the language difference is not too big of a concern for him.
Butler has taken the MCAT but hasn’t applied to any medical schools yet. He now intends on applying to the Cuban school.
Dickie Stevens, a Humphreys County supervisor, visited the school and was impressed.
“Here, you can’t help get the impression that it’s all a mercenary motivation. Everyone’s out there to get,” he said. “In Cuba, it’s a compassionate motivation. People are there because they care about people, and they care about the future.”
Stevens said many things in Cuba didn’t impress him, especially the poverty, but he said the medical system may be better than the United States’.
Cuba has one doctor for every 168 people, he said.
Barry Campbell, chair of the biology department at Delta State, thinks the Cuban scholarship program is a great way to increase the number of doctors in Mississippi.
Campbell advises many pre-med students and knows the long odds they face getting in.
“We’re graduating only 110 medical students as physicians a year,” he said. “Think about it. That’s just how many are graduating. We didn’t say they’re all staying. A lot of them have to leave the state because they owe so much money.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson said without the pressure of student loans of more than $100,000 hanging over them, more young doctors might decide to practice in places like Itta Bena or Rolling Fork.
“There would be nothing better than to homegrow somebody and send ‘em back home and say, ‘Go to work.’”