U.S. students attend free med school, learn value of community medicine

By Frank Posillico

Maritza Gonzalez-Bravo, the director of ELAM explains how medical school in Cuba works and what differences there are from schools in other countries. (Kevin Lizarazo / JWW)

HAVANA – Heather Ross is a 31-year-old American student who will graduate from a Cuban medical school here in two years. She is one of 106 American students who are part of a program meant to instill values of community medicine.

The Latin American School of Medicine, known by its Spanish initials ELAM, was founded in 1998 in a fulfillment of Fidel Castro’s hope that students from around the globe would study medicine here and then take what they had learned – especially about preventive care and the need to focus on the wide community – into their own countries and communities.

“I wanted to go to a school that would train me to be the kind of doctor that I want to be, not just a school that would train me to be any type of physician,” Ross said, adding that ELAM has “ideals that I feel are important about becoming a doctor.”

Cuba is known the world over for its adherence to community medicine, and from day one the students at ELAM are taught how to be part of their community.

The program, which lasts six years, is free for all students and is targeted at students from impoverished countries or low-income neighborhoods of wealthier countries, such as the United States.

The 50-year-old American embargo against Cuba limits travel for Americans, but as of yet there has not been an issue with the American students who have been going to ELAM.

“Here I love that there are students from all over the world, and since there are students from all over the world anybody can become a doctor,” Ross said. “It’s not just an exclusive group of people or the ones who had the most money or the ones that came from the best background or the ones that had parents that knew the dean.”

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, even subsidized state medical schools in the United State charge an average of $25,000 for state residents and $48,000 for non-residents.

The cost of ELAM, however, is much less. It’s zero, in fact.

Tachira Tavarez, a student at ELAM in her fourth year, writes a blog about her education and has pointed out that her budget — transportation and other costs that come out of her own pocket — came to $6,250 for the most recent school year. She said it was her most expensive year yet.

The Latin American School of Medicine is completely free for students from other countries, the idea is to train students and send them back home to their communities to practice. (Kevin Lizarazo / JWW)

“Our main interest – and that’s why this is a free program – is that we want to teach students who have grown up disadvantaged,” said Dr. Maritza Gonzalez-Bravo, the director of ELAM. She said the school wants those “who have no money to pay for their career, and the ones who guarantee that when they return they’ll go back to places where medical assistance is either minimal or nonexistent.”

The school was part of a response to the devastation left behind by hurricanes George and Mitch in 1998. Cuba sent medical brigades to the areas most hurt by the disaster, and ELAM was Castro’s longer-term solution –- training young doctors from these areas and sending them back to help their hard-hit communities.

When ELAM opened, Castro said that Cuba would graduate 10,000 students for the world and so far ELAM has graduated 15,000 students.

“This opportunity was something that I could financially afford …Our schooling, food, board and things like that are paid for here in Cuba,” said David Lavender, 31, from Texas. “I could come here, learn a different language and come out being a doctor.”

Like many of the other Americans at ELAM, Lavender liked the idea of focusing on preventive medicine. Plus, he had great respect for the Cuban health care system in general.

Though the American students said they liked their host country and its health care system, most indicated they plan to return home after finishing school. Some may decide to stay or to go off to another country to practice medicine, ELAM officials said, but that is rare.

Ross said that when she graduates, she plans on going back to her hometown of Blakely, Georgia, and focusing on the community she left behind there.

“I wouldn’t need to stay here. Just because it’s good here, doesn’t mean it’s better,” Ross said. “It just means it’s different. The U.S. it still has its pluses too. There are things that Cuba could learn from America.”


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