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Learning Medicine the Cuban Way

The Bay Area is a hub for new doctors who want to practice family medicine and help the poor, yet had to leave the country to learn how to do it.

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Yet back home Mitchell faced disapproval — even hostility — for deciding on a nonspecialized practice. "My first experience going home, my aunt and I had a heated argument — me saying I didn't want to specialize and if I did it would be family medicine or rural medicine. Her argument was anybody who had any sense would become a neurosurgeon or a cardiologist. But my image of a doctor is someone who can handle any situation that comes up."

And having witnessed the obstacles facing Cuba, the returning American doctors are scandalized with the state of health care at home. Mitchell works as a part-time medical assistant at a Bay Area clinic and doesn't have insurance herself. "There have definitely been a couple of times I've been sick and couldn't afford to see a doctor," she said.

"A friend did me a favor by seeing me, but I had to pay $60 for antibiotics — that was with the clinic's discount."

Before moving to Oakland as a teen, Pasha Jackson saw firsthand on the streets of South Central Los Angeles the power of nonmedical, psychosocial factors to spread disease — both physical and mental. Violence, joblessness, and addiction merge with poverty to leave many residents out of the health-care system. "What does primary care mean for the people around me?" he said. "It's self-medication. Junk and drinking. These people really need attention, and insurance will deny them for a list of reasons."

But Jackson didn't know he wanted to study medicine until he sustained a football injury. Recruited from City College of San Francisco by the University of Oklahoma, he went on to play for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders. But academic advisors throughout high school and college, he said, actively discouraged his interest in science. "They said it was too hard," and that his best chances were with football.

Reassigned by the Raiders to NFL Europe, Jackson tore his left pectoral — "a huge injury for a linebacker," he noted. "Once I left the NFL my health care ended, and to go to Cuba I needed shots and checkups to travel internationally. I couldn't believe what I had to go through. After calling around to public clinics, I had to wait for weeks and miss a day of work to see a doctor that didn't want to see me."

Jackson spent a year recuperating and getting physical therapy. And during that time, the effects of Hurricane Katrina reminded him of the deep connection between poverty and disease. "I knew I didn't want to play football anymore," Jackson said. "In the NFL there's so much waste, the playing with the money and power. I saw how much a part it was of the capitalist system."

Disgusted with professional football, Jackson went to the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization's web site and applied. The Cuba program "had me in Cuba, where I could learn Spanish; covered me financially; and got me back to science." With that, Pasha Jackson went socialist.

On summer break from his studies in Cuba, Jackson and more than a dozen other students from the Latin American School of Medicine visited deprived American communities to deliver basic health services and expand their own cultural competency. Los Angeles' Skid Row, a place with "ridiculous numbers of homeless people," was one stop on the trip, Jackson recalled. "Mora County [New Mexico] has hardly any doctors." They stopped at Pajarito Mesa, "where the Pueblo Indians live, with no potable water and no electricity. It shows you," Jackson said. "There's the Third World — right here. There are no national boundaries."

The devastating crisis in the desperately poor country of Haiti also might finally thaw the relationship between Cuba and the United States. The US State Department announced Friday that US aid workers would cooperate with Cubans on the ground in Haiti. Cuba already had 400 medical professionals in Haiti when the devastating earthquake hit and is sending more doctors and students to treat the injured. Those who've observed the Cuban medical approach agree that cooperation and conversation with Cuba, at least in this respect, might serve a dual agenda — providing relief to Haitians while showing how Cuban and Ameircan professionals can work together in a crisis.

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