July 1, 2008
An American Dream Realized in Cuba
Since her days as a young girl, Arabia Mollette dreamed of becoming a doctor. The streets of the South Bronx pulled in another direction.
"My family was hit hard with drugs," said the 28-year old student, "both of my parents." There were five sisters and a brother. At 15, "I was out in the streets selling drugs, sleeping on trains when I didn't have a place to stay. I was not on crack, but I did have a problem with drinking.
"Two of my sisters have passed away. One was shot to death in Schenectady when she was a freshman at college. She was in a car with her friend _ at the wrong place at the wrong time. The situation had nothing to do with her; it was the person she was hanging out with. She died three weeks after her 19th birthday. It was devastating."
Sent away to relatives in Peekskill, N.Y., Mollette achieved honors as a high school junior. And, at 17, she had a son with a 29-year-old. "The relationship with the father was not positive." It got worse when she talked of going off to college to fulfill her dream. "We were not together. He had my son at his house."
On the night of Feb. 19, 1998, the 4-month-old was rushed to the hospital, suffering from a heart attack, fractured skull and brain injuries. He died the next day. Claiming to have shaken his son when he wouldn't stop crying, the father pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 11 to 22 years in prison. "It's hard for me to sleep at night (thinking) I will not see my son again," Mollette told the judge before yelling at her son's father: "How could you put me through this?"
Gathering herself over time, the young student worked her way through Hunter College, graduating with a minor in black and Puerto Rican studies and a major in psychology. "I studied psychology because I wanted to understand myself as a black woman in America. I wanted to understand ... what made me do some of those things.
"Even as an undergrad, I was (sometimes) homeless. I didn't think becoming a doctor was going to happen due to the financial situation." The cost of a medical education ranges up past $150,000, with most young physicians $120,000 in college-loan debt. In June 2005, while participating in a biomedical research program at SUNY Binghamton, a friend told Mollette about the medical program she was attending. "I said, 'What medical school are you going to?'"
It was the Latin American School of Medical Sciences that Cuba created in 1999 to train doctors from the region. When Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., inquired about the school during a U.S. Congressional Black Caucus visit in 2000, Fidel Castro, not one to pass up a propaganda pitch, offered free medical training to low-income Americans to return home and serve their medically underserved communities.
Some 111 such U.S. students, mainly blacks and Latinos, have joined the 4,000 physicians Cuba has recruited from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. According to a recent Johns Hopkins newsletter, Cuba's highly rated, free medical system maintains the "highest doctor-to-patient ratio, about one physician per 170 patients, of all countries in the world." The U.S. ratio is one doctor to 400 patients; at HMOs, where most Americans receive care, it's one to 600 patients.
"I have utilized my tragic experiences to explain why I wanted to become a doctor, to fulfill this dream," Mollette told me during a recent trip to Havana, where I interviewed eight other U.S. students. "When I came down here (two years ago), I didn't speak any Spanish . By the grace of God, I was able to pick up Spanish in three months. When I'm studying or taking an exam, I think about the tragedies (of my life) to motivate me.
"My family can't help me, financially. I try not to be upset about that. Emotionally, they are there for me. So when I go home, I have to find some type of work, babysitting or cleaning somebody's house." All tuition, books, meals and even medical care the Cuban government provides free. "I have to buy my plane ticket and come back. And I have to purchase certain personal items I need. I wasn't born with a silver spoon. One day, I'll be able to help my family.
"What happened to my son, and my sister," Mollette said, breaking off into sobs, "is the reason I had to get myself together. I'm crying because for the first time in my life, I got to do something I wanted to do."