First batch of medics reflect on their impact on society 30 years after graduating from Havana medical university
Just over 36 years ago, a group of Jamaican medical students hopped over to the neighbouring Caribbean island of Cuba to embark on a mission that would change their lives forever.
There were nine of them, and they all knew that they would be following in the footsteps of one Kenneth Wykeham McNeill, the first Jamaican student to have received a Cuban Government scholarship to study medicine, in 1977, following a preliminary, if not exploratory visit in 1976.
McNeill, now member of Parliament for Western Westmoreland and Minister of Tourism and Entertainment, got there a year before his nine countrymen and would have given the natives a semblance of what was to come, in terms of the talent from their English-speaking friends.
By 1984 — thirty years ago, Jamaica had nine more graduates, who would later add to the growing list of doctors well-trained and prepared for the local market.
In the end, all nine returned to Jamaica and contributed significantly to the improvement of health care. Nowadays, all but one — Dr. Michael Clarke — live and work in Jamaica. Clarke practices in the United States, after spending several years in the Jamaica public health service.
The others — Dr. Locksley Wolfe, Dr. Renisford Beckford, Dr. Maurice Sloley, Dr. Neville Walton, Dr. Dawn Graham-Padilla, Dr. Ray Fraser, Dr. Marjorie Royal and Dr. Neville Graham — are all leading practitioners.
Dr. Wolfe, the only member of the group to have returned to Cuba for specialised studies, is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the St Ann’s Bay Hospital; Dr. Beckford, a general practitioner, is into private practice in Spanish Town; Dr. Walton, formerly of the Victoria Jubilee and Andrews Memorial Hospital, is an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Winchester Medical and Surgical Institute; Dr. Graham-Padilla serves patients at public health centres and runs a private practice; Dr. Graham is a consultant general surgeon at Winchester Medical and Surgical Institute and an associate professor at the University of Technology; Dr. Sloley is acting Senior Medical Officer of Health at the Port Maria Hospital; Dr. Royal works at the Bustamante Hospital for Children, and Dr. Fraser is Senior Medical Officer of Health at the Annotto Bay Hospital, St Mary.
All nine studied at the Universidad de Ciencias Medicas, or University of Medical Sciences in Havana.
Since that time, over 600 Jamaicans have graduated from universities across Cuba as doctors.
“The training was rock solid and there was the extra benefit of learning a second language,” Dr. Wolfe told the Jamaica Observer in an interview.
“The time spent was rewarding and one of the things I admired most was that there was a sense of security — you could sit in the park all night and nobody troubled you. Transportation was available all night. I spent 10 years there altogether and they were among the best 10 years of my life,” he said.
“We got a stipend of 60 Pesos a month, and we could buy things like ice cream, pizza and several other things from it. Plus, we always stocked up with Jamaican products when we came to Jamaica on vacation in February and in the summer.
“Whenever we got holidays we would not just return to Jamaica, but we would go into the hospitals and familiarise ourselves with how the system worked. That paid off for us, because we were not required to do local examinations when we came back, as we already knew the hospital rounds,” Dr. Wolfe said.
Although the six years spent by most was highly rewarding, even unforgettable, they had to undergo anxious moments, with politics being at the heart of one of them.
The scholarships were awarded under the People’s National Party (PNP) Government, headed then by Michael Manley, but when the PNP was swept from power in the 1980 general election by the Edward Seaga-led Jamaica Labour Party, all students studying in Cuba were asked to return home.
It was a time when firebrand Cuban Ambassador to Jamaica Ulesses Estrada, who had been declared persona non grata by the JLP, following statements that he made before the election in praise of the Jamaica Government which irked the incoming party, was thrown out of Jamaica. A year later, Jamaica chopped diplomatic connections with Cuba that were previously established by Manley in 1973.
Claims that Jamaicans studying in Cuba were getting guerrilla-style training were rife. In the end, good sense prevailed and the medical students, unlike the Brigadistas, who had gone there to do construction training, were allowed to remain and the scholarship kept intact.
Dr. Renisford Beckford was the first to be told that he had been awarded a scholarship to study in Cuba and his journey to the socialist country was far more pleasant than he anticipated, what with the diverse cultural exposure and mix.
“Studying in Cuba is the greatest thing that has happened to me,” Dr. Beckford said.
“I respect the Cuban Government for the generosity that they extended to us and the generosity that has been extended to so many Jamaicans over the years,” he added in an interview from his Spanish Town practice.
Dr. Walton too, described the Cuban experience as one that can never be erased from his memory.
“It was a wholesome eye-opener that helped us to recognise where we were in the scheme of things,” the gynaecologist said.
“For Third World citizens it made us understand who we were. It developed a level of patriotism in us which you would not get at home.
“We never had to face discrimination when we returned home, because representatives of the Ministry of Health and the University of the West Indies had gone to Cuba to look at the programme and they were satisfied that what was being taught was of the required standard. Upon our return we all volunteered to go and do a year’s internship, just to familiarise ourselves, although we had been visiting hospitals when we came home on holidays and we went on to apply for full registration and had no difficulty,” Dr. Walton said.
One of the more prominent graduates, Dr. Ray Fraser, who, apart from his government and private medical undertakings serves on the powerful Medical Council of Jamaica, the organisation that regulates the practice of medicine in Jamaica, compared the “six great years” that he spent in Cuba only to a similar period spent in high school.
“There were challenges, but the six years I spent there were among the best of my life, maybe bettered only by the six years I spent at Kingston College,” said the consultant general surgeon who helped revolutionise laparascopic surgery in Jamaica.
“The Cubans were very nice, very supportive and they treated us well. I was completing my final year in Natural Science at the University of the West Indies when I saw the advertisement about scholarships being available to study medicine in Cuba and I decided that fly high or low, I wanted to go,” Fraser told the Sunday Observer.
“Given all that was happening with Michael Manley and the social consciousness at the time, I knew it was the right place to be. Some members of my family tried to discourage me from going, but by older brother — Wayne — who is also a doctor, was very supportive.
“You were hearing all sorts of stories, because it was at the height of the Cold War.
“In 1980 the JLP won the general election and we were under the impression that the government would call us back home, but we decided that if that were to happen, we would stay and finish our degrees. To the government’s credit, they employed us when we returned in 1984, although we were under heavy surveillance and I know for sure that one policeman was placed to watch me while I served at the Mandeville Hospital,” Dr. Fraser said.
Equally prominent Dr. Graham also rated the Cuban experience highly.
“It was the most rewarding six years of my adult life. It’s not all about the fact that I received a medical degree, but also about how I learnt so much about caring for people and about a society that cares for people. I had the opportunity to meet various students from all over the world and the quality of the education was second to none,” said Dr. Graham, who is often called ‘Jigs.’
Of the graduates in his time, Dr. Graham believes that Dr. Fraser has since gone on to make the most significant national impact.
“I am proud of what we have achieved as a group and if I were to single out one of us who has made the greatest contribution to Jamaica, that would be Ray Fraser,” Dr. Graham said unreservedly.
Looking back at the time spent in Cuba, Dr. Graham remained insistent that life in Cuba was incomparable.
“There were language challenges until you got it right, food challenges too, because they cook with less spice than us, and general communication challenges, because it cost so much to call Jamaica and we got letters through the Jamaican embassy once a month.
“During our stay, the Cuban Government gave us a stipend, which was admirable, considering the economic challenges that they faced.
“The relationship that we developed amongst our Jamaican students and foreigners became lifelong,” said the former Clarendon College student who hails from Croft’s Hill in Clarendon.
For Dr. Wolfe, meeting former Cuban President Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was one of the greatest moments of his life.
“I met Fidel at the hospital that I was working. He had come to visit Che’s (Ernesto Che Guevara) daughter, who had just had a baby there. She had studied with us and she was the one who had received Che’s remains when they came back after he was killed in 1967 (in Bolivia),” Dr. Wolfe reflected.
Che Guevara, an Argentinian Marxist revolutionary and physician, has been largely credited as the brains behind the revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista from office. He was assassinated at age 39.
He was at one time Industry Minister, and President of the National Bank of Cuba.
“When Fidel came, I was on the labour ward and I heard a commotion outside. I looked through the window and saw the man himself with his bodyguards coming inside. My professor introduced me as the best Jamaican resident doctor and I shook Fidel’s hand, he laughed and walked away. I was in awe,” Dr. Wolfe revealed.
As for the training received, critics of the Cuban health system have sometimes argued that what is taught there is lower in standard to developed countries of the world, but not so for some of those trained there.
“The training that we got was on par with other high quality training anywhere in the world. I don’t know if things have changed now, but our group … the training that we got is reflected in the fact that all of us have done very well. Four of us are consultants and the rest are successful in private practice,” Dr. Wolfe said.
“Also, the level of discipline is fantastic. Its the way the system is organised — if you don’t behave a certain way, like not being punctual, and don’t attend meetings, there are consequences. The system there is very organised.
“We lived near Revolution Square in downtown Havana and every time that Fidel was going to speak, all the buildings close by had to be evacuated. When he is finished, you could go back up. I have seen up to two million people assemble in Revolution Square,” Dr. Wolfe said.
Dr. Fraser also stated that knowledge gained in Cuba was second to no other country.
“I worked with Dr. Peter Wellington at Mandeville Hospital and he told me after I had spent one year that it if is so Cuban doctors are trained, he wanted some more at the hospital,” Dr. Fraser commented.
“We as young doctors coming from Cuba had to demonstrate that we were good. We always had to be trying to prove a point that we were capable, because people were saying all sorts of things.
“I made progress at Mandeville and was recommended to do surgery after three years and I became one of the youngest senior medical officers, achieving the feat 10 years after I graduated from medical school in Havana.
“Our group was classified as the most outstanding foreign graduates, based on how we did and its not that Cuba was like a second thought to study medicine, because people who were qualified here to get into medical school at the UWI chose to go to Cuba instead,” Dr. Fraser said.
By H.G. Helps, Jamaicaobserver.com