From Texas to a Cuba Medical School

Graham Sowa

Graduates from the Havana-based Latin American Medical School (ELAM)

Like most children who grow up with any say in their future, I was often asked what I wanted to be.  Becoming a garbage man was an early option, probably followed by a variety of other noble civil service professions: fireman, paramedic, policeman, etc.

I can’t remember contemplating being a doctor until I was at least a year into my undergraduate studies in my home state of Texas.  At that point, I had begun considering Cuba as a location for my undergraduate studies, but that first endeavor failed.  As soon as I settled on adding another decade to my already 16 years of institutionalized education, I again opted for Cuba.

When I’m talking to someone at home about studying in Cuba, I consider the conversation a success if I can at least get a “Why Cuba?” out of them.  Blank stares and “Oh…” are the most common responses.  My answer to the former is usually given delicately.

You see, telling someone in Texas that I’m moving to Cuba to study medicine —socialist medicine— could be like telling a very jovial child that Santa Clause is in fact a farce.

It challenges what they have assumed for years to be good and right in the world their whole life… and Cuba was not in the good and right column.  So my answers vary according to the person and the situation, as I probably have as many reasons for studying medicine in Cuba as I can think of.

My most concrete reason for wanting to study in Cuba comes from the experiences I have lived.

During my undergraduate studies in anthropology at the University of North Texas, I spent every summer volunteering with various projects in Haiti and sometimes even managing to do something beneficial for one or two people there.  I often encountered Cuban doctors who left a great impression on me for their ability to help so many with so few resources.

This was what I was angling for: a medical education that would prepare me for working anywhere in the world instead of one that would relegate me to a specific system.

I experienced the same when working in the presence of Cuban doctors in Botswana during the couple of years I lived there after graduating from college.

My experiences thus far in Cuba have affirmed and challenged my expectations.  There is nothing easy about trying to integrate into a new culture – be it academic, political, or material.  I plan to continue to describe my experiences here as I am able. I expect that these reflections will prove beneficial to me and, I hope, to anyone else who invests their time to read them.

9 thoughts on “From Texas to a Cuba Medical School

  • Graham,
    Your principled dedication to helping the poor of the world and the courage needed to go from right-wing Texas to Cuba to study are truly admirable.
    I wish you and all the students at ELAM long and happy careers.
    The world need more people like you.

  • Thanks for all comments, I will try to check these more often. I’ll answer Julio.
    Starting from the bottom of your comment I don’t agree that any of the things you listed are “irregularities” I think those problems can be found in any institutional setting in any place under any system in the world. they are a regular part of social landscape. now to answer directly
    3. we are not paid in CUC, we get 100 cuban pesos (moneda nacional) every month. it is about 4 USD.
    2. well, i’ve heard rumors of students trying to throw money arround, and heard one story from a professor in the school about 2 of his coworkers that are now serving prison time for taking bribes. however, i’ve never heard of students holding recordings of professors hostage.
    1. some students are well to do and some are dirt poor. no one has a car (i believe it is illigal for foreign or domestic students to own cars) that being put forth, some students have access to embassy drivers and cars. i frequently see the students from palestine coming and going in embassy cars on the weekend.

  • Thank you for blogging your experience. I’ve never lived outside of the US and I desperately want to. I’m in the process of applying to ELAM now.

  • i am also a grad of med school here in Cuba and i thank Dios everyday WHY? ..It has alowed me to travel all over the i promised..helping others in need..that is the real reason right?

    Que te vayas bien

  • I guess this the bergining of your career in medicine. And i trust that you will be a successful medical doctor because medicine is all about helping people. And its the most noble job that a person capacity can be.
    All the best in your endeavors.


  • Graham, I am hoping you are able to read our comments.

    I have listen to an unconfirmed gossip and I think is possible that it will be easy for you to verify and tell us about it.
    Here is what I was communicated.

    1) Some of the students that come from other countries to study in Cuba Medicine come from well to do families in their respective countries. Some are even able to own a car in Cuba and many other luxuries not possible for Cubans etc things that are obviously way out of the possibilities of any normal Cuban be student or a worker.

    2) Some of the students have recorded their professors while speaking about politically sensitive topics in Cuba in order to be able to manipulate them later as they please.

    3) Cuba pays the students money in CUC not sure how much. (I really find this very hard to believe). They also get paid travel to their home country once a year.

    In reality I do find the 3 points above as really hard to believe. Given Cuba’s economic situation and even if the economic situation would allow such expending. It will be extremely instructive and illuminating if you can research on these or any other irregularities you may find.

  • I work with Cuba for 10 years now, although in tourism, I can say I LOVE IT!! The people, the culture, it’s nature (and protection of it), it’s architecture (which they try to restaure as much as possible within their few possibilities). I have also sent quiet some people for specific operations or treatments in Cuba, treatments like Retinosis Pigmentosis which can not be treated anywhere in the world except in Cuba. Unfortunately our doctors do not inform pacients and often they are already in a very advanced stage (almost blind) when they finally find out about it. Some get there in time, the earlier they are the more chance for a good cure. It was nice having read this letter of a Dutch youngster (24 years) thanking me for helping him see again. The fact that part of his sight was recuperated, and this only because the illness runs in the family and both his father & uncle had already been treated, so he knew about it in time!
    I wish you very much success, we need doctors to be able to care for us under whatever circumstances and not only with $$$ signs in their eyes. Doctors that really care for their patients and not for the money!
    All the best!

  • I’m really looking forward to your future posts! Already, you have accumulated some amazing experiences in Haiti and Botswana, and have come far, far from Grapevine, Texas, but I am sure this is just the beginning of the journey of someone who wishes to know as much about the rest of the world as is possible to fit into one lifetime. Yet, at the same time, I’m sure you’ll always carry a bit of your home with you, and when you return the insights you have accumulated will help you immeasurably in both your profession and in your knowledge of the world. I know you will enjoy Cuba, its people and its culture!

  • I love your first article and I’m looking forward to reading more about your experiences in Cuba.

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