The Americans that Chose Cuban Med School

Did you know 100 Americans have graduated from Cuba’s top medical school? I didn’t either, until I read a Mashable article translated and reprinted in a Cuban newspaper.

It turns out the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM) in Havana, Cuba is one of the highest regarded med-schools on an international level, and has graduated 23,000 students from Africa, Asia, and the Latino Americas since 2005. While 100 Americans pales in comparison to 23,000 international alma matter, it’s still significant (given cold relations between Cuba and the U.S.), and the chutzpa it took these students to go there is inspiring.
When I read this story, I wondered: “How did they get in? Wouldn’t the Cubans be against this? How did this happen under the Castros’ noses? Did they get the graces of the U.S. government?”

Interestingly, it was really the Cubans that took the lead on this one. Given their reputation for world class medical practices, the Cuban government was interested in internationalizing the reach of their medical capabilities. Their doctors-in-training must go on two missions to different countries to serve in times of crisis, such as during the Haiti earthquake or Ebola outbreak. The Cubans even offered support to the United States during Hurricane Katrina.

Medicine is an area where Cubans demonstrate great skill, and they’re altruistically looking for ways to spread their unique practices. In fact, they went so far as to extend an olive branch to the U.S. to work together on medical grounds. For nuanced political reasons, the U.S. government rejected the offer, but a handful of courageous young pre-med Americans decided to reach out and accept it.

Lillian (1)The Mashable article tells a story of a girl Lillian Burnett, a pre-med student graduated from UC Berkeley, who after hearing about the ELAM philosophy of medicine – holistic, intimate, community integrated – decided to make the bold move to Cuba to get her medical degree. Lillian comes from a low income part of Oakland, so it resonated with her that this school teaches that doctors are an integral part of building up marginalized communities. In fact, most American students that attend ELAM predominantly come from lower-socioeconomic communities, and are motivated to return to their communities as healers and leaders.

Lillian’s story is inspiring, because she mustered real courage to go somewhere so controversial to study. I’m sure she was scared of how she’d be received as an American, but nonetheless she said, ‘I’ll blaze that trail because I believe in their mission.’ It’s Rosa Parks-esque in the defiance of social constructs. Perhaps the courage of American med-students like Lillian will do more for US/Cuban relations than all the foreign policy summits, talks, and accords.f0007705

Lillian and all the other American med-students in Cuba are also admirable for their humility. It can be subconscious for Americans to feel superior to second and third-world countries, coming from a developed, hegemonic country. It actually takes conscious effort to recognize this ego exists, put it aside, and open up to learn. These students raised their hands and said, I want to learn from the Cubans because I see something valuable about the way they teach medicine.  The classrooms aren’t as technologically advanced and textbooks are a decade old, but perhaps Cubans have made great advancements and discoveries in medicine that developed countries can learn from. Hats off to our Cuban ambassadors-in-residence.

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