Physician MBAs in Cuba: Pat Purcell, MD, MBA'18

Curbside in Cuba: Saturday

Sunday morning, I awaken in my room to the sound of a rooster crowing. As I rouse myself and reorient to my surroundings, I remember that I am in a bed, in a room at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a lovely 5 Star Hotel in Havana, Cuba! How did I get here?

It started with my enrollment in the Physician MBA Program at the Kelley School of Business. A trip to study the medical community in another country is offered to the second year Physician MBA students, and since this [Cuba] was such a UNIQUE opportunity, first years were invited as well. So HERE I AM!

Cuba, officially the Republic of Cuba, is a country of 11.8 million people. Havana, its capital, is the largest city. Getting here was easy; we left Louisville, headed through Atlanta then it was on to Cuba.

The airport in Cuba is small with many checkpoints, but it was easy to navigate. Into the waiting area, many Cubans and tourist congregate as they meet family and friends.

Our tour guide Christopher, was easily identified (he did have a sign), we were taken to a bus and on to our hotel.

We arrive to a “on the house mojito” and the opportunity to sit outside on the veranda: and OH MY!

Here's the scene: men and women sitting in the sun, with the Straits of Florida water lapping the shore in the background. Beautiful drinks with mint leaves, vibrant colors and of course small demitasse coffee cups abound! The smell of cigars gently floats by, and I see men smoking large cigars as they rapidly speak in Spanish.

We head onto a tour bus, where we are taken to eat at a restaurant called El Cocinero. It's a rooftop setting, with tropical plants, a light breeze and the most amazing food! We return or a stroll around the hotel and then it's on to bed! Tomorrow, on the agenda, are lectures and walking tours.

Curbside in Cuba: Sunday

The rooster is still crowing…he seems to crow all day!

The day started with informative presentations from Dr. Marcelino Feal, a general surgeon in Cuba, and urban planner Miguel Coyula. Both prepared us for the afternoon of walking the city of Havana ( or Habana if one is Cuban).

Lunch was served at the Hotel Nacional and was delicious. We ate “typical” Cuban food ( beef, rice, bread, guava puree with sharp white cheese for dessert) family style with the Straits of Florida as our backdrop. To add to the Cuban experience, a band of three played music as we ate. Sipping a mojito, eating tasty food, listening to the music, surrounded by the water prepared us for the afternoon.

Old Havana is clearly divided. We first went into the “center square” where shops that sell food, coffee and various goods are located. Street performers and artists abound. It's a very festive atmosphere: All is well.

Further to the periphery of the square is the “true” Havana, where the conditions are more depleted. The buildings are old, worn and in total disrepair. Families seem to make the best of the situation, creating space wherever they can. We were struck by the sharp contrast.

We left with some sadness, but our next stop (visiting Barrio Habana, a non profit that leads community sports, arts and a health initiative including senior citizens), lifted our spirits. Soccer abounds in Cuba.

Tired, mentally and physically, we returned to the Hotel Nacional for dinner and rest, and it's on to the next day!

Curbside in Cuba: Monday

I am looking for the rooster, and he seems to be hiding!

We began the day with a long run along the Straits of Florida, with the waves hitting the rocks, gently spraying us as we ran. Breakfast at the hotel was a cornucopia of various Cuban fruits, meat, cheeses, eggs and pastries with dark coffee.

Fortified, we shuffled onto the bus onward to our first stop of the day: A typical health clinic. We listened to a presentation from a doctor and professor describing the evolution of the model of Cuban medicine with an emphasis on the “family doctor." Many questions followed; this was a very interesting discussion! We took a quick tour of the facility, a few additional questions were answered, then it was onto lunch at a government-run restaurant. Lunch consisted of delicious chicken, rice and did I mention mojitos?

We then visited ELAM, the Latin American Medical School, which trains thousands of doctors from all over the world. We were pleasantly surprised when we met with three of the American students attending ELAM…one student was from Indianapolis! Over delicious coffee provided by ELAM, we discussed medicine and Indianapolis. From there we visited “Victorio de Giron” a medical school that trains Cuban students. A presentation from the Dean and then over coffee and water, many questions were asked. Fortified by the coffee, filled with many thoughts, we returned to the Hotel Nacional for dinner on our own and to ready ourselves for tomorrow. I personally am reading up on roosters! What did Hemingway do?

Curbside Consult from Cuba

Yesterday evening was busy! We took a cab from the hotel to dinner, and we asked the cab driver in broken Spanish, “Where would he take his mother?” He dropped us at a restaurant, we went up a flight of stairs and dinner was served (enough for a FAMILY)!

We then took another cab back to the hotel, stopping on the road for a “procession” (military marching across the street). All cars stopped for them to cross! This was very formal! I was tired, so I did some reading and then went to bed. The room is dark and quiet… perfect! Then the ROOSTER crows! Looking out the window, I still cannot see him.

Breakfast again is a vast selection: Today, pasta is offered. It was really good, so who am I to complain! A woman bakes the pastries every morning that we have been here, and she is very PROUD of her guava-filled pastry! Well – to her credit - they are really good!
We were supposed to participate in a panel discussion with Cuban Health Specialists, but there was some sort of confusion…but….we were offer an impromptu meeting at an artist’s studio! Edel Bordon Mirabal and his wife opened their home (which is also their studio) to discuss his profession as a painter (with showings all over the world) and as a professor at the art school in Cuba. As he described his childhood being very very poor, to his current success with his paintings, one could imagine a “rags to riches” story in the US!

We were offered an opportunity to browse his work while on the 10th floor overlooking the Straits of Florida, sipping coffee and liquor. How very gracious of him and his wife. Then we took a short trip the Monument of the Revolution, and it was onto lunch at the Paladar Atelier. Here, there were delicious drinks (including bottled water), lobster, chicken and beef with rice and beans. There was a dessert of ice cream and brownies!

Then - imagine our enjoyment when the physicians from the morning [the panel discussion] were able to attend our lunch: Each physician at the table was peppered with questions from table mates. An open and honest discussion ensued! What absolutely gracious people! Their time is precious (especially based on their caseloads), and they chose to spend it with us! Hopefully, they felt the same appreciation for our similarities as well as differences!

After that, we headed onto the bus, and some people headed to the market, tour museum or head back to the hotel. Me, I am returning to the Hotel Nacional to track the rooster… They live for 15 years, have poor sense of smell BUT hear very well. So, If I sneak up on him tomorrow morning, I can have smelly suntan lotion (The weather is beautiful but warm), but will need to sneak quietly!

Curbside Consult From Cuba

Well, my friend the rooster was crowing, but I really do not hear him as much!

I have respect for his persistence in crowing every morning…just as the Cubans have persistence in “finding a way to get things accomplished." When observing the older cars that act as taxis, their owners have a can of tools in the trunk to “fix” the car when it breaks down. They figure out a way to get the car running on limited parts and tools.

Today, we were privileged to have Gail Reed with MEDICC, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, speak to us about the Cuban healthcare system and cooperation with the United States. Ms. Reed is a women who figures out a “way to get it done!" She has lived in Cuba for over 30 years and has an innate ability to work within the Cuban system to better the relationship between Cuba and the US for the betterment of the Cuban People. We all were uplifted by her presentation.

Next stop was CENESEX, the National Center for Sexual Education, where a very informative presentation provided us all with Cuba’s perspective on sexual education, medication and surgical treatments! WOW…a great morning!

Lunch was AGAIN delicious at Le Chansionner, a lovely paladar in the Vedado district.

THEN, it was onto a visit to an elderly care center where the elderly (Described as 60 or older…REALLY???) can stay for the day or post rehabilitation for illness, such as hypertension or diabetes. The thought is that stimulation with walks, six meals daily and the ability to converse with others will improve elderly care.

The HIGHLIGHT was a group of elderly women (The oldest and the hippest was 92) sang and swayed for two songs as we all smiled at their joy and enthusiasm! Small homemade trinkets were distributed to all. I will keep mine as a “good luck” piece, and I will treasure the gift from someone who has so little!

Maybe that is why I really do not hear the rooster crowing????

Curbside Consult from Cuba

Our last day prior to departure arrived. The rooster outside of my room was not noticeable! The peacocks outside the Hotel Nacional were beautiful!

First stop was a facility that educates the population on presentation of HIV/AIDS. It is considered an additional facility to our previous visit to the sexual education clinic. They appear to work together, but they seem to have separate agendas. Here, there was a very lively discussion on the use of condoms for prevention and how Cuba began manufacturing their own (This is a common theme in Cuba, of "self manufacture").

Then it was on to a mental health facility, which was a large airy building, where we sat on the second floor with open veranda doors and the breeze blowing. Mental health in Cuba has many similarities to mental health in the states.

Lunch was served over a veranda on the water. The best fish so far!

Then our last stop: the Infectious Disease Institute. Studies on tropical disease and the history of the facility were presented. Then it was back to the hotel for our farewell dinner together. Complimentary glasses of rum and cigars were passed to all!

The next morning we left by bus in groups to the airport. Tech support for Delta was down initially, but then it came back while they held the plane for our departure!

There were long lines for TSA (Although in Cuba it is manned by very young adults), and we eventually got through. I was sitting on the plane with my professors, who could not have been more gracious with concerns for traveling and further flights. The Kelley School of Business Physician MBA Program’s professors are not only wickedly knowledgable, but they are caring and truly interested in our experience! The best and GOOD BYE to Cuba!