Best things in life are free: studying medicine in Cuba

Who would have ever believed that one of the best medical programs in the world is free, in a third world country and primarily filled with people of color?

I, future doctor Chasiti I. Falls, am a rising fifth year medical student in Havana, Cuba. Under full scholarship to a six-year medical degree program, my room and board, my books and study material are all free. Even my simple mandatory uniform is free. I have to say the cherry on this sundae is that health care in Cuba is universal and free.

ELAM (Escuela Latino Americana de Medicina) or Latin American School of Medicine in 2009 accepted students from Asian, Mediterranean and more than 50 African counties that sent representatives to be trained in Cuba as physicians for them to return to their countries to provide services in the most medically neglected and impoverished regions.


During a Congressional Black Caucus delegation visit to Cuba in June 2000, Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi remarked to the former President Fidel Castro that there are large areas in his district that do not have a single physician. President Castro responded with an offer of full scholarships for young adults from Mississippi to study medicine in Cuba.

In time, the unbelievable offer was extended to young adults from the working-class and underserved areas throughout the U.S., who cannot afford to pay the $200,000 it cost to study medicine in the United States.

Annually on average, six percent of black students in the U.S. are accepted into medical degree programs, while in Cuba 80 percent of my classmates are of color or the African Diaspora. The only condition of Cuba’s offer is that graduates of the program return to the U.S. to practice in underserved communities. Recruitment for the program began in 2001.

 The program

ELAM is located on the site of a former naval academy. During the six years of study, all the courses at ELAM are taught in Spanish. The optional pre-med curriculum includes introductory courses in health sciences, chemistry, biology, math, physics and a 12-week intensive Spanish language program. Thus, it is not mandatory that a student speak Spanish to apply.

One of my classmates from California was not even able to say hello when we arrived in 2006, however, today he is thriving in his studies and fluent not just in Spanish but Medical Spanish.

Personally, that was my decision maker. I shadowed a physician at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who was well prepared and highly qualified, but on the other hand when she was faced with relaying medical information through an intermediary to her Spanish-only speaking patient, the channels of communication were rocky. I learned that this could lead to a diminished doctor-patient relationship.

The first two years are on the ELAM campus, and students take a combination of basic science courses compiled into a “Morphology” curriculum.

The next three years entail clinical rotations (i.e. gynecology, internal medicine and surgery). The training model combines theory with practice and focuses on primary care and community medicine. The last year is a one-year fully-loaded, rotating, hands-on internship, which responsibilities include teaching underclassman.

The ELAM program is designed to help every student succeed. The U.S. students even receive a modified curriculum that promotes USMLE (United States Medical License Exam) preparation.

As a student, I am allowed to perform surgeries, deliver newborns and attend everyday people and issues while on call in the emergency room.

 American in a foreign land

I am a mother, daughter, aunty and Fort Wayne native who decided to pack up everything and go to a third world country to fulfill a dream. I always had aspiration of being a doctor and, like for so many others, the dream seemed far away. Until one day, an unidentified man approached me and said, “You look like I should tell you this: There is a school in Cuba that is training people of color to be doctors for free. Call this New York phone number if you are interested.”

Of course, my first impression was not one of belief, until after one long, hard, single-parent day. I sat down that evening to talk with God about what I could do to benefit my family’s well being, when I recalled that strange day. I dug out the number and called it, which to my surprise worked. A secretary answered my questions and filled my ear with useful information and made arrangements to send an application packet to my home.

I touched down in Havana in 2006 and have been blessed to sit with renowned men such as Minister Louis Farrakhan, Danny Glover, countless American doctors and activists of the past and present. I have been featured in Essence Magazine and a BBC News Media Exchange advocating the program. Cuba has turned out to be a beneficial yet testy experience.

At this stage of my educational career, I am living in a dorm on hospital grounds in Central Havana where I share a room with 11 Latin American students. I rotate through several hospitals depending on their specialty. We eat beans and rice, and complete patient evolutions daily. At times I study by candlelight and go days without running water.

I have a travel license, but despite the fact of our new leadership, I am still subject to travel regulations and restrictions put in place by the Bush administration. For example, I have to travel to another country before I can travel home. Don’t believe the hype: Sure I can fly to Miami, but it is an expensive charter flight that would entail a thorough customs check.

In 2009, I was even subject to having my bank accounts frozen. As a 2007 and 2008 Cuban Friendship Caravan participant (delivering humanitarian aid to Cuban people), I never thought of myself as an activist. I just know that to change the world, I have to be active and I am not able to tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools.

Truthfully, it is a trying experience; however, I am learning everyday and live by the motto “be cool, stay in school.” I can honestly say that this is the first time other than elementary school I have been able to dedicate all my time to my studies without having to work. I decided to trade the false riches and amenities of the U.S. for six and a half years to fulfill a void in my community and my life path of becoming an obstetrician/gynecologist. I made this great sacrifice with vision and determination.

For details and applications, contact he IFCO (Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization) recruitment office is in New York at (212) 926-5757 or via e-mail The website is

This article was originally published by Frost Illustrated, published here with permission from the author.