Monday, August 31, 2009

A month in madison; off to San Francisco

I've been home in Madison for just over a month now -- the longest time I've spent at home since I left for MIT four years ago. Free from work and school, I had a lot of time to process the past and add some definition to my vision for the future. It has been a month of deepening relationships with family, re-connecting with old friends, letting go of a three year relationship and learning to love again. I spent a week wilderness canoeing in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park with my dad, visited my beloved grandmother in Duluth not once but twice, realized what a truly amazing person my sister is, and became inspired by the company my mother founded, which makes its own brand of hormone free and organic whey protein powder for shakes and drinks: 'teraswhey'.

The whey plant by a pond in Reedsburg WI, and a canister of the final product. Fair trade chocolate, yum...

People often ask me what it is like to come back to the US after a semester in Cuba, or a summer in the rain forest of Ecuador. The answer is that I now go back and forth between developing countries and the US so often that I no longer get culture shock when I go nor reverse culture shock when I return. Instead, I feel like my lives in each setting, once so completely distinct from one another, have been merging. Four years ago, when I went to MIT, I filled the trunk and back seat of my mothers car with my stuff and found it hard to imagine how international students simply arrived on planes with a couple of checked bags.

Off to medical school in San Francisco.

Tomorrow I move to San Francisco, and instead of taking a car full of stuff, I am taking the same amount that I always take to Cuba, or Mexico, or Ecuador -- my hiking backpack plus a school backpack. There is a pillow, blanket, and sheet in there this time since I'm not staying with a host family, but the rest is pretty much the same. Why? Because really, it is the same stuff I need to be comfortable and happy anywhere, with slight variations for climate.

A semester in Cuba

Where I have I been for the last 6 months? A country where e-mail contact was a real challenge, never mind blog posting, and hence the absence of posts since January. A country where ice cream cones cost 5 cents on the street and medical school is free, not only for its citizens but for thousands of aspiring doctors from developing countries around the world. A country with comparable health statistics (child mortality, life expectancy, etc) to the united states despite economic hardship exacerbated by an economic blockade left over from the cold war era. The country, of course, is Cuba and I was there for a semester at the Latin America School of Medicine (website in spanish).

Inside the glass windows is the library, and below it is the stage used for country 'galas': 2 hour performances by each country including music, dance, and skits to share their culture with the rest of the school.

Turns out that in addition to the thousands of students studying medicine for free in Cuba from across the Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, there are over 100 US students studying medicine in Cuba under the same scholarship, thanks to Fidel Castro's generous offer to extend scholarships to US students who want to work in underserved communities and the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO). As someone who has wanted to study medicine for a long time, wants to work in under-served communities, but is quite concerned about the debt from a US medical school, I applied and was accepted to the program.
My group of 36 students from Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Paraguay, Panama and El Salvador

The beach in front of ELAM.

I had an amazing semester at the gorgeous campus of ELAM, a former naval base right on the ocean. I met students from across the hemisphere, learned a tremendous amount about my own country, and became extremely inspired by the school, its mission, and the students who study there. I also developed a deep admiration for the Cuban medical system in which each neighborhood has a small clinic staffed by a doctor and a nurse working to facilitate health rather than just treat illness. My space in the dorms. I had the top bunk and a locker to store my things.

In the end, however, I decided to accept a different offer -- at the University of California, San Francisco. It was an extremely hard decision to make, and in the end it came down to rather ordinary considerations -- the program in the US is a few years shorter and it is easier to stay in touch with friends and family. I know that I could have been happy and become a very good doctor had I chosen to stay in Cuba, and a big part of me wishes that I were doing just that. It was so hard to have to chose between two worlds, when I feel so strongly that the tremendous divide between developed and developing countries should not exist.