Less than 48 hours after stepping off the plane from Cuba, Milwaukee native Alexandra Skeeter grew teary-eyed reflecting on her experiences as a medical student on the island nation.
“You can be a doctor and help people, but the way these (Cuban) doctors help people with just everything, being there for them every step of the way — every pregnancy, every vaccination,” said Skeeter, one of two Wisconsinites studying at the Latin American Medical School near Havana. “That’s the way I want to help people.”
Skeeter, 24, returned home for the summer just days after President Donald Trump announced that he would maintain the economic embargo on Cuba. She has seen firsthand how the embargo has strained the health care system there.
“In the hospitals, there’s a lack of medicines and a lack of resources, which would be easily remedied by (removing the embargo),” she said.
Skeeter just finished her third year at the medical school, known as ELAM. The Sherman Park native, who graduated in pre-med from the University of Minnesota-Crookston, earned a full scholarship for the seven-year program from the Cuban government, which was coordinated by the U.S.-based Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization.
Manolo De Los Santos, program liaison for IFCO in Cuba, has seen first-hand Skeeter’s commitment to community medicine and the ways she is able to move past a patient’s medical condition to connect with him or her on a personal level.
“This program has allowed her to grow in her sense of humanity in not seeing any boundaries or limitations to be there to help other people,” he said. “I always feel like she has this amazing generosity of the spirit, which is essential to becoming a good doctor.”
Trump this month also announced tighter travel restrictions to Cuba in addition to pledging to uphold the economic embargo on Cuba until it releases political prisoners and makes steps toward democracy and freedom of expression.
The changes won’t impact Skeeter’s ability to continue her education in Cuba, she said. However, it might make it difficult for her family to visit her while she’s away at school.
ELAM, which accepts students from all over the world, was established by the Cuban government in 1999 after it sent a corps of doctors to help surrounding countries hit by devastating hurricanes that year. The country often sends large groups of doctors to disaster zones and areas hit by disease outbreaks, like Ebola and Zika.
The school focuses on training students from outside Cuba. The first year focuses on language immersion, and the other six are spent honing the students’ skills in personal, community-based medicine.
The Rufus King High School graduate has seen the U.S. and Cuban health care systems up close and says each has its challenges. Both face systemic problems. In the U.S., it’s spiraling costs and accessibility of care for citizens. In Cuba, it’s a lack of resources and advanced technology.
But Skeeter thinks the U.S. can learn from the Cuban example of community-based medicine and preventive care, which she hopes to stress when she returns to practice in Milwaukee.
“I would love to practice medicine the way they do, deeply embedded in a community where the doctor lives close or above their clinic,” she said.
The World Health Organization ranks the United States and Cuban health care systems at about the same level, with the U.S. at No. 37 and Cuba at No. 39, significant given their relative sizes and economic resources. Cuba’s GDP in 2013 was about $77 billion, compared with about $18 trillion for the U.S., according to the World Bank. Life expectancies for the nations are also close: 79.39 years in Cuba, and 78.94 in the U.S.
Skeeter has always had an interest in health and helping people. Several of her family members are nurses, and she originally intended to follow that path when she went off to Minnesota.
She was initially hesitant about her decision to become a doctor, but she grew more confident over time. There was no defining moment; rather, it was the slow exposure to a culture unlike her own that showed her how medicine could be done differently.
“It’s just a culmination of being there for so many years and meeting beautiful people that really do things for others and they get nothing in return,” she said.
De Los Santos, the program liaison, said Skeeter has shown that same kind of commitment as she ventured into communities to help people understand the outbreak of Zika and other diseases, and what they can do to prevent exposure.
“What I’ve enjoyed with Alex is seeing how she has consistently volunteered for any opportunity inside school and outside of school to be part of this experience,” he said.
Skeeter won’t be staying in Cuba after she graduates. The government, she said, wants all students to go back to their homes as soon as possible to focus on community medicine.
She’d love to eventually practice family medicine or obstetrics and gynecology in Milwaukee. But she would first have to pass her U.S. medical exams and serve a residency program at an American hospital.
“It would be so cool to go and to live where we grew up and just be that person for all these people that really need someone, need a doctor,” she said.
Alan Hovorka, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 3, 2017