Between living in Haiti and Botswana over the past few years I keep finding instances in my life where I don’t give second thoughts to things I think most people would instantly question. For example, one of my classmates from Chile calls himself Satan (not his given name, just what he calls himself now). This is not a lie. The first time I met Satan I had to double check I was hearing his name correctly but as soon as I found out I was hearing it correctly I accepted it without a second thought. This was about a month ago. Then on Friday I was contemplating my presence in medical school in Cuba and what exactly I have gotten myself into and then it hit me: I got to school with a guy who calls himself Satan. I’m not nearly as surprised with his name as I am with the fact that I didn’t give it a second thought until a month later. I just accepted it as it was.
In Satan’s defense, he is a really amicable fellow. He just happens to love the genre of music called “death metal”. Odd for a future doctor? Perhaps, but thank God (no pun intended) that it is only music. I’m sure he will make a good doctor, and I feel that fans of death metal deserve a doctor who understands their life just as lawyers and bankers have doctors that understand their lives. After all, he will probably be really good at diagnosing, treating, and understanding injuries encountered in mosh pits at concerts.
I guess situations like this are destiny for those of us who search out understanding of other people and their situations. It seriously makes me wonder what other things in life I miss that other people would immediately see as odd. On the other hand, it also helps me understand that things I think are odd, such as poverty in the midst of so much wealth, other people accept as part of the normalcy of life. So in the end who is odd and who is normal? My answer: If a medical student named Satan can be normal pretty much anything can be.
All students at the Latin American School of Medicine are highly advised to participate in the yearly Scientific Journal competition. This is a country wide competition open to all university students. Our advisors for our journal articles are our professors or other faculty members. These professors have fervor for what they do. Most of them are teaching from 8 to 12 class sessions every week, often times in multiple subjects. They themselves are required to publish written reviews or investigations every year. Then work with us on our stuff. And grade tests and papers. And on top of that manage their department. There is no secretary at the front desk of the department, in fact, there is no front desk. I’m about to get off track talking about how different the professor culture is in Cuba from the U.S. I need to get back to the journals, but I’m going to revisit this area soon, I promise.
So, the Scientific Journal. In reality it seems that most students do not participate. And those that do participate usually write at least 2 or 3 articles for different journals depending on time and research resources available. Research in Cuba is very different. Our library is scant on books, however it is easy enough to go to Havana and buy books if we need them. The most expensive book in the country is not going to cost more than 30 pesos…about $1.25. However, what Cuba does have is an extensive country wide electronic library. Books, journal articles, thesis, everything. All available for free PDF format download.
Library reading room with a view of the Straits of Florida
So for the articles I am writing I’ve been pouring over a lot stuff written in Cuba. And I have stumbled upon something most interesting. Cuban research, no matter what subject, rarely talks about demographics. There is no talk of upper income levels and the lowest standard deviation of income, there is no talk of black, white, asian, or other. Very little racial demographic data is to be found anywhere. As a social science major from a United States university this is downright bewildering. I mean, these are the first distinguishing marks we are told to use to differentiate our sample. And here I am in Cuba and no one really gives a flip about how many people were black that got sick and how many people were white. What the Cubans care about is that people got sick. Where are they from? What made them sick? How do they live? Sure there are great arguments about why we need to look at groups of people based on their skin color or historic ethnic origin because of genetic predispositions and culture. But most of these arguments are well suited for a half-assed type of medical treatment we have in the U.S. We normally treat people in groups, according to the most common demographic features so we can judge success based on the population rather than the individual. If you don’t buy this why do you think so many individuals fall through the cracks?
Computer lab. Holy of Holies for those of the WWW clan.
Then there is Cuba. Here, people are rarely treated medically as a group. When it comes to treatment, and hell, even prevention, it is an individual on individual basis. There is no room or reason for distinguishing black, white, poor, or rich in this system. Those details don’t matter when you have the will to treat every person as an individual. What matters to the Cubans is how many people they cured and how many they didn’t.
I wake up between 5 or 6 am every morning (depending on what was undone when I went to sleep) and study and then get ready for the day as quickly as I can. Grab my bread, cheese, and warm milk (coffee if lucky!) from the cafeteria and head to class. If I find myself with enough time I will sit down and read an article or two out of the most recent edition of the Economist or a Cuban newspaper. The Orbe and the Juventud Rebelde have local and some international news and are about 8 pages each. No classifieds.
Then it is off to class. Got to be there by 8am with correct uniform (white bata and blue pants, they say black shoes but no one really enforces that). From 8 to about noon is class. Class interactive and small (9 students) so lunch time sneaks up quickly. Back to the cafeteria, hoping there is no line for my comedor (comedor 6). Usually there is not now that they rearranged which groups are eating in which comedor. Cuba is really good at handling large groups of people for anything (feeding, injecting, screening, teaching ect). Lunch could be a big piece of pork with plenty of fat; a couple of hot dogs, chicken, and, of course, the staples of rice and beans. Ice cream is usually served twice a week. Pretty much everyone cleans their plate, but if its pork day I try to search out my Muslim friends from Palestine and Guinea, as that means a lot more meat for me.
Then right back to class until around 4:30. These classes have more students, around 25. We are all in groups (I’m in group 27) and we have all of our classes with the same group. In my group are Brazilians, bunch of folks from the Solomon Islands, and a couple each from Tuvalu, Kiribati and Guyana. Since about two years ago the Latin American School of Medicine has really become a global school with representation from around 40 or 50 countries. After class I find an empty room (under a fan) and study until dinner. If I feel like braving the mob I can go stand in line for internet. Our school has a daily quota of internet use (something like 1024 MB) and it usually runs out around 5:30pm. This is why our weekly guaranteed internet time starts at midnight, when the daily quota rolls over. After studying or internet it’s back to the cafeteria for dinner. I usually get done with dinner around 6 or 6:30 depending on who I sit with and how good the conversation is. Usually I sit with a group of friends from Mexico or just with people I have not met yet and strike up a conversation.
In my room, the white lab coat is a bata, people study in their beds
I always have the goal of getting right back to my room and getting to work, but I usually end up falling asleep while waiting for our water to turn on so I can get a shower (we get water three times a day in our dorm, morning, noon, and night, for an hour each time). So I usually end up cracking the books and opening the laptop around 7:30 or 8…sometimes 9 if I get distracted by one of the 10 people I share a room with. I sit in my bed, open the shutters, and enjoy the caribbean breeze. We have a snack (break and cheese with yogurt or juice) served from 9pm to 11pm and that is another trip to the comedor. I always tell myself to sleep by 10pm but that never happens. Midnight is the norm. Sometimes roommates are loud and wake me up, but not often. Usually just too exhausted to be bothered and everyone respects each other more or less in room. That is a very brief rundown of my Mondays-Fridays at ELAM.