Dónde está el medico? U.S. College Students Learn About Cuba’s Healthcare – as Patients

By: Matthew Mikalonis

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba – Adelphi University students recently got a close-up look at Cuba’s healthcare system – perhaps a bit too close for their liking.

They were patients.

While visiting Cuba in January, as part of a two-week journalism study abroad course, two students from the Long Island university required medical attention.

“When I was told that I was going to the hospital, I was a little afraid at first because I did not know what to expect,” said Celine Etienne, one of two seniors who fell ill.

Getting sick while travelling is always a bummer, and it can be a nightmare if it occurs in a developing country.

But it turns out Cuba, with its world-class healthcare system, is a good place to have a medical emergency.

“I thought Cuba had pretty poor medical resources, a poor healthcare system – and obviously that is not [the case],” Ben Nichols said after being treated for an eye problem. “I was not aware that Cubans had great doctors – the education they get and the whole healthcare system.”

Joan Stein-Schimke, a professor on the trip, was equally impressed with the care her students received.

“Doctors are very passionate about treating people, and about how they want to make sure the patient is covered in terms of what could possibly go wrong,” said the documentary film professor.

Indeed, the Adelphi students learned what many experts have been saying for years. During a visit to Cuba in 2014, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said that the country’s health care system is an example for all countries of the world, the Huffington Post reported . Despite very limited resources and painful economic sanctions imposed by the United States for more than half a century, Cuba provides healthcare access for all citizens and obtains results similar to those of the most developed nations.

The Adelphi class’s hospital visit occurred midway through its Cuba trip, while visiting Pinar del Rio, a city on the far western side of Cuba. The class was among the first Americans to visit Cuba, which had been off-limits for 50 years due to an embargo imposed by the U.S. government following Cuba’s socialist revolution in 1959. Three professors and 11 students ventured to the Caribbean island nation from Jan. 5-15 to learn about the changes underway and report on it for a website they created, CubaStories.com.

On the morning of Jan. 10, Nichols awoke with a very swollen right eye and Etienne had developed a sore throat, congestion and a possible fever. The professors were concerned that students’ conditions could deteriorate and that their symptoms might spread to the class’s nine other students.

The group’s local tour guide, Ivan Gomez Trujillo, recommended delaying the group’s scheduled morning activity and instead visiting the nearby Hospital General Docente Abel Santamaria.

It didn’t take long to get the help they needed. In contrast to American hospitals, where emergency room waits are often several hours long, the two students were almost immediately seen by doctors. The students bypassed the waiting room, where several Cubans sat waiting to be treated.

“I have never been in a hospital where things went so quickly,” Stein-Schimke said. “I don’t understand why it takes so long in the United States.”

Professor John Drew, who previously lived in Cuba, admitted his students may have received special treatment because they’re American.

“It was entirely possible that the hospital officials were aware of whom the students were and catered to our every need,” said the professor, who was able to help doctors understand the students’ symptoms because he’s fluent in Spanish. “Regardless, [it] does not take away from the positive experience that Nichols and Etienne had.”

However, the hospital visit did not get off to an auspicious start. Etienne’s skepticism over Cuban healthcare initially grew deeper when she entered the ER and saw its conditions.

“I was kind of shocked about how unclean the hospital was in comparison with the United States,” said Etienne.

In addition, the hospital had to make do with less advanced technology.

“In comparison with the United States, this hospital had a lack of medical equipment in general,” Nichols said. “Besides eye examination equipment, disinfectant wipes, scissors, tape, and tablets, there was basically nothing in that room.”

Stein-Schimke added: “There was no extraneous stuff. Desk, chair, doctor and their equipment. All that is needed, and there is nothing fancy about it.”

But what the hospital may have lacked in resources it made up for with the care provided by its staff, the students and professors agreed.

Etienne was seen by a total of seven specialist doctors. Given her symptoms, physicians feared that she might have Dengue fever, a tropical disease transmitted via mosquitoes that causes pain in joints and a fever. Hospital staff administered an X-ray and a blood test.

Even though the equipment used was rudimentary, the results came back within 15 minutes and Dengue fever was ruled out. A doctor prescribed medication to improve Etienne’s condition.

“The medical staff were completely professional,” said Stein-Schimke, who waited with Etienne while she was treated. “They were very kind and treated Celine with gentle care even though she could not understand them [speaking Spanish].”

Nichols had a similar experience. He was accompanied by Drew to an examination room to get his eyes checked out. There, he was seen by two ophthalmologists who were able to examine him, diagnose the cause of his eye irritation and prescribe medication to treat it.

“The doctors who treated him were able to provide first class care even when faced with basic conditions,” said Drew, a new media professor who observed that the medical reports and prescriptions were written out by hand because there were no computers.

The experience was eye-opening in many other ways, too.

As the professors and two students proceeded to the hospital’s pharmacy to pick up prescriptions, they witnessed two armed guards escorting a badly bruised prisoner from a local jail into the hospital.

The incident later provoked a long group conversation, with one student noting this highlighted the right to human dignity no matter what a person’s background is. Never would a scene like this – in which a prisoner is brought to the best hospital in the area for treatment – ever unfold in the United States, the students agreed.

At the pharmacy, differences between the American and Cuban healthcare system were also apparent. Students noticed that none of the medication in stock had any visible evidence of branding and marketing associated with any of the products. The medicine bottles at the Cuban pharmacy simply contained the drugs and had no logos. This is one reason why medication is so much cheaper in Cuba than the United States, speculated Drew.

All together, students’ treatment – from the time they entered the ER until when they finally departed with their medication – took only about 90 minutes. And it cost them nothing.

Drew said the hospital’s finance minister told him that since Nichols and Etienne were students, they would not be charged for the hospital visit.

Best of all, the experience had a happy ending.

Etienne and Nichols both bounced back to good health very quickly.

Nichols said, “Within eight hours of leaving the hospital, my eyes [had] gotten better and the swelling [had] gone down after taking the medication.”

He added that it was the “best experience in a hospital that I have ever had. Overall, I have had very few interactions with medicine that was as quick and as painless as that one.”