Haiti MD Tells His Cuba Related Story

HAVANA TIMES, April 6 — Writing for medicc.org, Conner Gorry brings us part one of an interview with Haitian physician Patrick Dely from Port-of-Prince.  The doctor tells of how he came to study medicine on a scholarship in Cuba and how four days after the devastating January 12th earthquake he was back in his home country helping with the relief effort.

Dr. Patrick Dely - photo: medicc.org


By Conner Gorry in Haiti

Dr Patrick Dely spent his early childhood in St Michel L´Attalaye, a town in the central province of Artibonite where the environment was nearly exhausted and educational opportunities limited (to say the least). He spent his childhood in Haitian public schools – where up to 150 students share a classroom, oftentimes without a teacher – and always dreamed of becoming a doctor.

But until a friend alerted him to the possibility of a scholarship to study medicine in Cuba, his future practicing medicine remained just that: a dream. Over ten years later, Dr Dely is a family doctor who was a few weeks short of obtaining his second specialty in epidemiology in Cuba when his country was devastated by the earthquake. I sat down with Dr Dely in the Cuban camp in central Port-au-Prince to hear more about this remarkable young man.

You always wanted to be a doctor?

I’m the youngest of eight children and I was a sickly as a child, so I was in the hospital a lot. My desire to be a doctor grew out of the respect I had for the doctors I saw curing and taking care of people and I thought, ‘one day I want to be a doctor and help people like these doctors help me.’ So, even in grade school when people asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I always answered: ‘a doctor.’ That was my dream.

When I graduated from high school, although I wanted to study medicine, it was impossible. So I chose a major that was close: natural sciences and chemistry. After getting my degree, I started teaching, but I was frustrated. Although I liked teaching, I realized that something was missing and that something was my dream of being a doctor. Yet, it wasn´t an option: the state university only accepts 100 students each year from across the country. And the other colleges are private. Imagine the cost and then imagine me, the youngest of eight and my family paying just for me.  It wasn´t happening, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I was missing something.

Then what changed for you?

One day I was getting ready to go to work when a friend called me and said ‘hey, you know your dream of being a doctor? Well, they’re offering these scholarships to Cuba. You have to try and get one.’ I said look, I´m 25 already. I’m too old for that. I can’t start studying medicine now.  I´m ready to begin my second Master’s degree and settle down to start a family.  And he told me: ‘listen here, if you don´t compete for one of those scholarships and try to make your dream come true, you can forget about being my friend, my brother. You have to go for this scholarship.’ And I told him no, no, no and I hung up the phone.

Dr. Patrick Dely with Dr. Luther Castillo - photo: medicc.org

But the most beautiful part of the story is that my mom overheard the conversation. As soon as I hung up, she said: ‘you’re a professor, you’ve done something, but you haven’t given me any satisfaction. I’ve always dreamt of having a child who was a doctor. And now you’re saying that you´re too old to study medicine in Cuba. Let me tell you: if you don´t go for that scholarship, you can leave this house. If you don’t study medicine in Cuba, out! You think you’ve arrived, but you haven’t done anything. You say you’re old, but you’re young. You have to continue. Look, I don’t have a lot, but I’ll give you everything I can so you can continue studying.’ And my mom’s support, plus my friend’s, convinced me that it was worth a shot.  Why not? So I showed up for the scholarship, got one of the highest scores, and one of the first slots to study in Cuba.

When I saw the results, it felt like a complete breakthrough, like a totally new stage of my life was starting. It was as if all my 25 years had been left behind. I felt so happy… my family, all my siblings, everyone was so happy.

Tell me a little about your experience in Cuba.

Like all young people, I went with my own ideas and philosophy. I had my goals and my life perspective already in place. I went to Cuba to become a doctor, to return to serve my people, of course, but also to reach a level, attain a certain lifestyle, that were beyond my previous possibilities. You know the prestige doctors enjoy in Haiti.

But I hadn’t been in Cuba even two years when my thinking began to change, and my goals with it. I began to think about my country, about my family, everything that was happening and I realized that I am very, very privileged. There are thousands and thousands of young Haitians who want to study medicine with such a scholarship, but they haven’t had the opportunity to finish high school, they haven´t had their mom, brothers and friends behind them providing all the support and pushing them to succeed and strive. A new philosophy began taking shape in my mind. I began dreaming big, beyond just being a doctor for me. I started thinking about my country, and thinking about others.

I started to feel a responsibility to help as many people as possible. So many helped me succeed in realizing my dream and I want to give that back.  Now that I´ve realized my childhood dream to be a doctor, another dream has taken shape.

And that is…?

Now that I´ve become a doctor, I dream of a different Haiti. This is my greatest dream now. I want to see a Haiti where the kids go to school, where the adults have a job and when they leave their house they know they´ll come back and there will be food. I dream of a country covered in forests, a country where there’s brotherhood among our people. This is my life goal now. I want to see an end to illiteracy…All of my work is now is aimed at this – a new Haiti.

Do you think this is possible post-quake?

Yes. I´ll tell you what my philosophy is today, March 18, 2010. I don´t know if you noticed, but every time foreigners speak about Haiti, they talk about the misery. They show the problems, the worst of what is happening here. This tends to cow Haitians, to lead them to emigrate or run away from the problems. But it has a different effect on me. Every time I see something like this, it makes me want to work harder, to fight harder for change. This earthquake has multiplied by fifty my desire to work to change Haiti. I think these changes are possible today.

So when the earthquake happened, when I saw the first images on the news, I started to cry. But I thought to myself, you can´t let yourself drown in tears. ‘Dry your eyes, tighten your belt and go help those who need you. ‘Four days later, after a petition to the Cuban Ministry of Health requesting permission to take a leave of absence, myself and 41 other Haitian doctors working and studying in Cuba were on a plane. Today, these 41 are distributed throughout the country, some are here in Port-au-Prince, others are working in the departments, in Jacmel, in Les Cayes…

People talk about the reconstruction of Haiti. But for me Haiti was never constructed. We have to talk about construction. Although we’re the first free black nation in the world, we’re just finding our way now. I think we have opened a door and I’m one of those who want to walk through it.

(In Part II of the interview, Dr Dely talks about challenges to practicing medicine in Haiti and his plans for a “new Haiti.”)