This CBS Evening News story by Kelly Cobiella raises some interesting questions. The story tells about 12 US medical students who are graduating from Medical School in Cuba, having been given six years of free education and training in exchange for a commitment to serve needy communities back in the US. Cobiella interviews one of the medical students who was filmed in Sicko when the 9/11 workers were being seen by doctors in Cuba. Evelyn Erickson, the medical student interviewed, was sympathetic for the problems of the 9/11 workers. From the article:
Evelyn Erickson is from Washington Heights in New York City. She was lured to Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine by the promise of a free education â€” a gift of sorts from the Cuban government.
Fidel Castro started the school in 1999. His goal was to train people at no cost, in return for their pledge to practice medicine in poor communities back home â€” an offer extended to a handful of U.S. students in 2001.
It’s a world away from the United States. Home for Evelyn and her fellow students was an old army barracks with bunk beds, cold showers and a four-dollar-a-month stipend. And, unlike the U.S. where students spend four years in classrooms and labs, these students spend six years in classrooms and clinics.
“They were calling me doctor, and I was like, ‘No, no I’m not the doctor. I’m the medical student,’” Evelyn says. “But what happens is that we are the people who examine the patients from the very beginning.”
They also learn about a much different healthcare system, which was documented in the recent Michael Moore film Sicko, where all services are free and everyone is covered.
“I was one of the people that was there translating for these patients when they came here to Cuba, and so I was actually there hearing their story,” Evelyn says. “And I think it proposed a really good question about looking at our medical system and seeing what kinds of things we need to change.”
Still, Cuba is no healthcare paradise. The hospitals are crumbling, doctors make about 20 dollars a month and there are shortages of almost everything from drugs to high-tech equipment.”
A free training for an MD is nothing to sneeze at, but Ericka and her fellow classmates were definitely not living the high life in Cuba, being housed in decrepit-looking barracks spray-painted with graffiti, taking cold showers, and making only $4 a month. But at the same time, what did they need to spend money on in Cuba? And remember from Sicko, an asthma inhaler in Cuba costs .02 cents.
Still, seeing the pictures of the barracks where the medical students were housed is a stark reminder of how poor some countries are, particularly countries that fell under Communist rule. It brought me back to a trip I made to Czechoslovakia when I was 21, after graduating from Hunter College and before taking my first job as an Assistant Editor for The Hudson Review. It was shortly after the “Velvet Revolution” and while there was a spirit of rebirth in the air, buoyed by tourism dollars pouring into the country, there were also painful reminders of a country that had lived under a repressive imperialist power. There was no sense of abundance of material goods or food. And there was a certain hollowness to the social community, a lingering sense of distrust and fear.
One thing that interests me about this is that despite being a very poor country, Cuba finds room in its medical school to train American doctors for free, so they can return to the US and practice medicine. They are willing to help us in this way, even in their extreme poverty as a country. They are helping us. It makes me question what we, the wealthiest country in the world, are doing to help them.