For nearly five years, small groups of physicians — primarily surgeons — from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine have traveled to Cuba to participate in professional conferences, teach medical students and share clinical practices with peers from around the world.
The program was launched in 2012 by Tanya L. Zakrison, M.D., M.H.Sc., M.P.H., assistant professor in the DeWitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery’s Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care, in partnership with Marc A. de Moya, M.D., a former fellow in the trauma surgery program at UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital, who is now associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, which also sends faculty. The two schools are occasionally joined by representatives from other U.S. medical schools.
Both program founders have ties to Cuba. Zakrison, a Canadian, studied biological sciences in Cuba during a year-long program while an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. De Moya was born in the U.S. to a Cuban father, who began his medical career in Cuba before emigrating with his family to the U.S. in the mid-1950s.
“As a Canadian, I was accustomed to traveling throughout Latin American and to Cuba, typically for study or surgical electives,” said Zakrison. “In Cuba, there were always students and visitors from around the world, just not as many from the United States. So naturally, the curiosity was high among our American colleagues. Once the medical and scientific connections are made, however, they evolve quickly into friendships that transcend any political barriers that may exist between the two countries.”
The trips to Cuba, which are self-funded, typically coincide with surgery conferences held there. The most recent — in which Zakrison was accompanied by Enrique Ginzburg, M.D., professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Surgery and Trauma Medical Director at Jackson South Community Hospital, and Shevonne Satahoo, M.D., a fifth-year surgical resident — took place in November during the 13th Cuban Surgical Congress. They also participated in a pre-congress trauma course taught at the University of Havana’s General Calixto Garcia Hospital.
For Ginzburg, the trip had special meaning, because he had not been back to his birth country since his family left when he was 4 years old.
“I was treated unbelievably well there,” he said, “and it was a very emotional experience. I visited the home where we had lived, and the current residents let me inside to look around. Some of the rooms were still as I remembered them. I also visited the place where my parents were married and the buildings where my grandfathers had stores. We were middle class and among the first to have our businesses taken over, so we left in 1960. For me, it was sort of a homecoming. I never felt so Cuban.”
Miller School faculty have made teaching trips to a variety of additional countries, such as Panama, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile, through programs held by the Panamerica Trauma Society.
“These trips complement UM President Julio Frenk’s strategy of increasing the University’s collaborative initiatives and hemispheric presence,” said Zakrison.
She says Miller School faculty have found working with Cuban medical students and physicians particularly rewarding because of their motivation to pursue a medical career.
“There is a financial disincentive to go into medicine in Cuba,” said Zakrison. “You can make more money in other fields, such as tourism. Salaries for doctors and nurses have doubled in recent years, but they are still low. The rewards are non-material, so the students and physicians we work with have made a strong personal choice and are truly committed to medicine.”
The next trips will take place January 23-25, during the Convención Internacional Calixto Garcia in Havana, and May 22-26 for the fourth annual Cuban Trauma/Emergency Surgery Congress and the second annual Trauma Nursing Symposium being held in Santa Clara, Cuba. For additional information, contact Zakrison at [email protected]
University of Miami Miller School of Medecine, January 12, 2017