June 27 2016
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As a historic center for human resources training, today Havana’s Calixto Garcia School of Medical Sciences is a cornerstone of the results achieved by Cuba in the field of public health.
The institution of higher education offers technical and university courses in Medicine, Nursing, Dentistry, Health Technology, and Psychology, to professionals working in the various Cuban medical programs both inside and outside the country.
The school’s origins date back to January 23, 1896, when the Alfonso XIII Hospital was built close to the Castillo del Príncipe fort. Responding to the demands of university students, in 1943 this was renamed the General Calixto García University Hospital, by presidential decree.
To begin with, the school included the departments of Physiology, Physics-Biology and Chemistry-Biology, with the later addition of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. As a novelty, the subject of Medical Ethics was introduced, absent from the curriculum at private universities. In the 1930s the teaching of obstetrics was also incorporated.
Early revolutionary struggles
Students and teachers openly participated in the revolutionary struggles against the sell-out and semi-colonial governments of the twentieth century, and in January, 1934, Dr. José Elías Borges Carreras, prominent leader of the National Medical Federation, was killed during a strike.
Medical students took part in the protests against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista beginning March 10, 1952, and provided assistance to wounded revolutionaries. Student Manuel Hernández León became one of the martyrs of the struggle, along with other employees, savagely tortured and then assassinated.
With the closure of the University of Havana in December 1956, the medical school also closed its doors, and several of the young people enrolled there set off for the Sierra Maestra, to fight in the ranks of the Rebel Army led by Fidel Castro.
A source of patriots
With the triumph of the Revolution, new management was appointed at the faculty on February 2, 1959, encouraging the admission of professors sincerely committed to the people. They also provided care in the Calixto García hospital itself, given the mass exodus of professionals abroad, encouraged by U.S. media campaigns.
So explains Sc.D. Olga María Piera Rocillo, who enrolled in 1954 and saw her studies interrupted in 1956 due to the closure of the school, before continuing in 1959. She was asked to assist with teaching classes on Clinical Propaedeutics and Medical Semiotics for second year students, prior to graduating.
In courses taken before the triumph of the Revolution, students were forbidden from touching patients, Olga explained, noting that she has met many colleagues who graduated without having witnessed a live birth, visited an operating room, or accompanied other doctors in practice.
The impact of the revolution
On graduating in 1962, Olga was invited to study the specialty of Anatomic Pathology given the withdrawal of specialists in this branch of medicine, which she grew to love, thanks to the dedicated efforts of a Bulgarian professor, who was providing solidarity in Cuba.
The Doctor of Sciences and tenured professor, describes teaching as the center of her life: “I enter a class and it is as if an artist is taking to the stage to become a character. In the classroom I give it my all, and show my students where to find out more, so they can surpass me,” she notes, adding “Today I note how my students occupy different leadership positions, others are professors and several are scientists.”
She has a range of anecdotes regarding her students to tell. She recalls those who failed to make the grade due to spelling mistakes, the sadness of an Ecuadoran student when his father was ill. Also student Augusto Enriquez, who dared to sing on the same stage as the Argentine troubadour Mercedes Sosa and today devotes himself to music.
The professor advises her students to base their diagnosis on the accuracy of the clinical examination; to learn to listen to the patient; to distinguish the visible pathological changes in the body; relate prior conditions to the current state and order laboratory and radiological tests when needed. “It is usual in contemporary medical practice to rely only on the complementary tests,” the experienced doctor explains.
Faculty Dean Mabel Aguiar Gorguis, a second degree specialist in Comprehensive General Medicine, agrees with her colleague. She notes that a peculiarity of the Cuban school is the integration of theory and practice, as from the first year of study students undertake rotations at different health care levels, learning through practice.
The faculty has several teaching locations in three municipalities of the province of Havana for these rotations: Habana del Este, Central Havana and Old Havana. Specifically, the facilities of the Calixto García University Hospital for the teaching of clinical and surgical sciences, the Central Havana Pediatric Hospital for child and maternity care, and the América Arias Maternity Hospital for gynecology and obstetrics. Specialized centers and tertiary institutes are also used for postgraduate education.
There is a teaching department in each Municipal Health Administration
Throughout the country, there is a teaching department in each Municipal Health Administration closely linked with the school and responsible for arranging student medical practice in each area.
Mabel notes, “From the first year, medical students start to perform basic nursing procedures. I mean hand washing; measuring blood pressure; intravenous, subcutaneous and intramuscular injections. That is, necessary skills to interact with patients and their families. Of course, they are accompanied by a tutor, the attending physician in the clinic in which they find themselves.”
Students at the forefront
These same steps are followed by students from other countries enrolled at the school, who either self-finance their studies or have scholarships funded via exchange agreements signed between their governments and Cuba. Students from a total of 28 nations study alongside Cubans.
Another group undertakes short courses, internships, residencies in different medical specialties, masters and doctorates. The medical degrees offered by the faculty have been accredited and certified as “Course of Excellence” on three occasions, fuelling the enrolment of approximately 4,000 international students in each academic year.
Another important area is the research conducted within the curriculum, responding to strategic lines of inquiry carried out by groups of professors, which is continued in postgraduate courses, masters and doctorates. This knowledge is shared in different scientific conferences convened by the faculty staff.
Personal effort and dedication
This is corroborated by medical student Alberto Alonso Mompié, who notes that his degree course demands a great deal of personal effort and dedication. However, he combines his studies with extra-curricular activities, cultural events and sports.
“We participate in other activities related to awareness and disease prevention in the community,” he explains, adding, “I’m talking about the Health Fairs, during which we staff different stands in a park to explain sexually transmitted diseases, non-communicable diseases, control of diabetes and hypertension, hygiene at home, and many other subjects. We have done so in the Los Sitios neighborhood, the Villa Panamericana, and along Havana’s Prado Avenue.”
Meanwhile, Yaneisys Gutierrez Villavicencio, in her third year of medicine, notes that students of the faculty actively participate in the country’s political life, “I can mention two examples, the March of the Torches, held every year on the evening of January 27 to commemorate the birth of José Martí, which we lead. We also organize a camp prior to May 1st, and we parade with the people on International Workers’ Day.”
Students of other nationalities also participate in these activities as Augusta Vanessa José, from Angola, notes, “I have witnessed the humanism in treating patients. I admire this chemistry of empathy achieved between doctor and patient. I find it fascinating to study medicine in Cuba.”