The school of life

Cedric Edwards’ path to becoming a doctor took a few unexpected turns

Cedric Edwards with his degree from the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba.

Cedric Edwards with his degree from the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Cedric Edwards can be contacted at

For Cedric Edwards, the best and worst days of his life were only one day apart.

In September, Edwards, 34, became the first U.S. citizen to graduate from the Latin American School of Medicine, or ELAM, in Cuba. But on the Monday after graduation, Hurricane Katrina tore through Edwards’ hometown of Slidell, La., leaving his house under water and his family homeless. Today he’s living out of a suitcase in Sacramento, struggling to get by.

“Graduating medical school was probably the highest point of my life,” he said. “To come from someplace so high and fall so low was just unreal. It was shocking.”

Living through hurricanes in Cuba and then watching Katrina destroy his hometown, Edwards has seen the best and worst of both countries, and it’s taught him to keep an open mind.

Wearing a New Orleans Saints cap, Edwards is a serious young African-American man, with a passion for chess, opera and the violin. Reading untranslated Spanish medical texts for six years has given him a tendency to sometimes lapse into Spanish, but he still speaks with a thick Southern accent and feels a deep connection to his hometown.

“This was my community,” he said. “And I just kept seeing these images on television, images of poor black people on roofs, going days without food or water. It was as if the government had abandoned them. To have people left for days like this was unacceptable.”

When Katrina hit, Edwards was stuck in Havana. He sat glued to reports coming over the television, not knowing whether his own family was alive or dead.

“I was especially worried about my brother,” said Edwards, who was inspired to go into medicine after his brother was paralyzed from the neck down in a high-school football accident. “I felt so helpless thinking he might be in danger. When you see all this suffering, but you can’t do anything, it’s a terrifying, deeply depressing experience.”

A week passed before Edwards finally found out that his family was alive, living in a hotel.

Slidell was a quiet small town, half an hour from New Orleans, specializing in ecotourism and antique shops. He was scared to death as he left for Cuba, his friends and relatives warning him of crime, poverty and violence.

But he said his decision to attend ELAM was a practical one. Growing up in a poor community, Edwards wanted to find a way to give back, and going to ELAM was the only way to achieve his dream without amassing huge educational debts.

His first weeks in Havana were difficult. He didn’t speak any Spanish; the school Internet connection was always down, so he couldn’t talk to his family; and the summer was heavy with mosquitoes. But Cuba seemed a far cry from the desperate slum he’d imagined, and he came to admire the country’s commitment to training doctors and providing universal health care for all citizens.

At ELAM (established in 1999), medical students from all over the world, including Africa, South America and the United States, receive free tuition, free room and board and a monthly stipend, courtesy of the Cuban government, in the hope that they will use their free education to serve poor communities in their home countries.

Cuba is not a wealthy country. Its hospitals and clinics are a far cry from the high-tech wonders of American medical facilities. But ELAM is listed as an accredited school in the International Medical Education Directory, and its students are eligible to take the U.S. medical-board exam and practice in the United States. Eighty U.S. citizens currently are studying at ELAM.

Like almost everything involving this island nation, the school is surrounded by controversy. Some praise it as an example of Cuba’s commitment to international altruism, while others see it as a cynical political move meant to bolster the country’s reputation.

“[Students’] stories about the ideal Cuba they experienced brings sympathizers into Castro’s sphere of influence,” wrote Agustin Blazquez, a Washington-based documentary filmmaker of Cuba: The Pearl of the Antilles, on the Web site

But Sacramento resident William Bronston, who has traveled to Cuba and toured ELAM, said the program is more than PR. “Cuba is dedicated to training people to become the finest physicians, because of an explicit and purposeful commitment to serve and elevate the human experience, not as a propaganda tool.”

For his part, Edwards is uninterested in political hand-wringing. “I can’t say that the program isn’t political, because everything’s political,” said Edwards. “But whatever the purpose behind it, the end result is that it does a lot of good for a lot of countries. Regardless of a person’s politics, I think there are certain aspects of the Cuban health-care system which could be adopted here to make things better for everyone.”

Because he couldn’t return to Slidell after graduation, Edwards has been living with a friend in Sacramento with nothing but a single suitcase. He wants to apply for a residency in the coming year, but first he has to pass the licensing exam, a challenge when he doesn’t have money for preparation courses or exam registration.

In the meantime, he’s hoping to find a sponsor and scrambling to make money any way he can, working as a church janitor during the day while cramming at night. He cuts grass, takes out the garbage and sweeps the floors, all the while looking forward to the day that he can put his medical training to use.