Students celebrate Latin American Medicine Day in Cuba

Medical students from more than 80 countries in Cuba are celebrating Latin American Medicine Day on Tuesday, a profession that they dream of exercising with humanism, solidarity, and committed to peoples' health and lives.

Students of the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) are trained under these principles, and the educational institution has graduated a total of 29,736 young people from all over the world in its 20 years; 6,848 went on to study Comprehensive General Medicine, while 2,135 have studied other medical specialties, all of which in Cuba.

'Nothing can change the essence of their mission, which is to provide healthcare wherever needed, making the peoples of the world smile,' assured Dr. Patrick Dely, from Haiti, a member of the first graduation.

At present, Dely is the National Director of Epidemiology, Laboratory and Research of the Ministry of Public Health of Haiti. He is a college professor at a medical school and head of the International Medical Society of ELAM graduates.

Patrick realized his dream of becoming a doctor to help people, and 15 years later, this higher education center keeps on fulfilling many poor young people's dreams from all over the world.

Bwambale Hagai, from Uganda, has wanted to be a surgeon since he was a child. He had heard about the work of Cuban doctors in his country and decided to apply for a scholarship to study in Cuba. He is now a sophomore and vice president of ELAM's Educational Committee.

'I like preventive medicine; I do not want people to get sick; this is the reason why I am studying,' he said.

At 25, he says that he is grateful for the opportunity and proud to change his life and the lives of those around him.

'I want to be an integral physician, who knows his society, because I am concerned about the people where I come from (?). It is not enough to diagnose and cure illnesses. I will change and improve lives,' he pointed out.

During their training, these students visit doctor's offices and have contact with patients, so they deepen their knowledge of the clinical examination as an exploratory method to reach a diagnosis, in teaching based on the relationship between theory and practice.

ELAM was created on November 15, 1999, by the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz, in order to train young people from poor families.

ELAM graduate doctors have boosted important health programs in their countries of origin, for example, Operacion Milagro (Miracle Operation), that has restored the sight of more than 3 million patients in 35 Latin American, Caribbean, and African nations.

  • Published in Cuba

Lucho, a grateful Bolivian man

I met him one morning at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). He is small, thin, and his hair shows specific traits that clearly denote his indigenous roots.

The introduction was brief as we barely exchanged some words. But he said he came from a very humble family, which I already knew.

He came from a very distant place in Bolivia named Canton de Huacanapi, in Oruro, where his father and some of his siblings herded goats and other animals. Lucho was quiet, a country boy, distant to the usual city customs.

Right after he told me about his relatives and how much he missed them, he confessed he would not be able to end his studies even though his dream was to becoming a doctor in medicine and return home to assist his people.

And so it began a friendship that lasted while he was here in Cuba. While most of his schoolmates went back to their homeland at the end of every school year, he could not do it as his family could not afford the round-trip tickets.

Lucho regrets it, but he knew his duty was to finish what he started in Cuba. He liked to dream of his definitive return, the doctor’s office he would open at the feet of the mountain, the smile of his neighbors and friends who never had the chance to visit a doctor. In Canton de Huacanapi —where he lived back then—, people healed with plants and beverages, traditions and knowledge that were passed on from generation to generation.

Few years passed before I met him in his doctor coat. He was not that quiet, shy, country boy anymore. He had definitely changed. He had not only graduated as a doctor, but he was also training to become a cardiologist at the Calixto Garcia Hospital.

We met in a bus stop at the heart of El Vedado neighborhood. He tried to tell me the whole story in few minutes: he had overcome his fears. He got used to the Cubans’ way of life and he even liked the food!

The grateful Bolivian man stumbled over words. But he found time to thank his President. “Lady, had it not been for my President Evo Morales, I would have been herding goats all my life in my beloved Canton de Huacanapi along with my parents and siblings! I am doctor thanks to him. He gave us the opportunity to study. It has been really a dream. Who would have thought my parents will say one day with pride their son is a doctor?”

Translated by Sergio A. Paneque Diaz/CubaSi Translation Staff

  • Published in Specials

Fidel Castro's legacy

FIDEL CASTRO would have been 93 years old yesterday, but many celebrations took place in Cuba and around the world to honour the man who stood steadfast against the US’s continuing 60-year economic blockade, attempts to overthrow the Cuban government in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and many CIA-backed assassination attempts.

Fidel Castro (far left), Che Guevara (centre), and other leading revolutionaries marching through the streets in protest over the La Coubre explosion, 5 March 1960
Fidel Castro (far left), Che Guevara (centre), and other leading revolutionaries marching through the streets in protest over the La Coubre explosion, 5 March 1960

Cuba’s example of socialism is a beacon to the rest of the world, demonstrating against the odds that it is possible to build a sustainable economy, provide world-class healthcare, while maintaining an internationalist perspective exemplified by Cuba’s legendary medical brigades.

Twenty years ago the Cuban government established the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM), formerly Escuela Latinoamericana de Ciencias Medicas (Latin American School of Medicine). It is a major international medical school in Cuba and a prominent part of the Cuban healthcare system.

It is one of Fidel Castro’s enduring legacies due to Che Guevara’s medical training and passionate internationalism, committing them to sending medical brigades all over the world to the poorest countries after natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes or outbreaks of killer diseases such as Ebola.

Established in 1999 and operated by the Cuban government, ELAM has been described as possibly being the largest medical school in the world by enrollment, with approximately 19,550 students from 110 countries reported enrolled since 2013.

All those enrolled are international students from outside Cuba and mainly come from Latin America and the Caribbean as well as Africa and Asia. Tuition, accommodation and board are free, and a small stipend is provided for students. To date ELAM has graduated 31,000 medical students from 103 countries.

ELAM students come from the poorest communities with the intent of returning to practice in those areas in their countries. Initially only enrolling students from Latin America and the Caribbean, the school has become open to applicants from impoverished and/or medically underserved areas in the United States and Africa. As part of Cuban international co-operation, ELAM is also training 800 medical doctors from Timor-Leste.

ELAM was first conceived by Fidel Castro as part of Cuba's humanitarian and development aid response (known as the Integral Health Plan for Central America and the Caribbean) to the devastation caused by Hurricane George and Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which affected several countries in Central America and the Caribbean including Cuba.

In all more than 11,000 people died in the resulting floods and mudslides. In response 500 full medical scholarships per year for the next decade were offered by the Cuban government to students from four countries — the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua — seriously affected by the hurricanes.

The first class of 1,498 ELAM doctors graduated on August 20, 2005, with 112 from other Cuban medical schools: 28 other countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States were represented by the graduates.

The ceremony was led by Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In June 2000, a US Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) delegation visited Cuba to meet with Castro. Representative Bennie Thompson mentioned to Castro that his district had a shortage of doctors; he responded by offering full scholarships for US nationals from Mississippi at ELAM.

Later that same June, in a Washington, DC meeting with the CBC, the Cuban Minister of Public Health expanded the offer to all districts represented by the CBC.

At a September 2000 speech event at Riverside Church, New York City, Castro publicly announced a further expanded offer which was reported as allowing several hundred places at ELAM for medical students from low-income communities from any part of the US.

Reports of the size of this offer varied in the US press: 250 or 500 places were suggested with perhaps half reserved for African-Americans and half for Hispanics and Native Americans.

The ELAM offer to US students was classified as a “cultural exchange” programme by the US State Department to avoid the restrictions of the US embargo against Cuba. The first intake of US students into ELAM occurred in spring 2001, with 10 enrolling in the pre-medical program.

A cruel irony that Cuba, a poor country suffering under a US economic blockade lasting nearly 60 years, actually trains students from the US to go back to the poorest communities there and help those in need who cannot afford private healthcare.

  • Published in Cuba
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