A tour of a Cuban mental health facility left Megan Cavanaugh in awe.
Patient-created papier-mâché artwork was displayed throughout the building. Patients could be heard making music.
When it came time to leave, tears began to stream down the Pittsburgh native’s cheek. Everything at the facility focused on tapping into a patient’s specific skills.
“Cuba’s big goal at their mental health facilities is to reintegrate patients back into society. They find a patient’s talents and have him or her pursue them,” said Cavanaugh, a rising senior nursing major at Penn State Behrend. “At the end of the tour, we could not help but cry. The doctor asked us if we had suggestions, and no one could come up with anything because it was so well done.”
Cavanaugh’s takeaway was indicative of why she and 12 other students from Penn State Behrend, University Park and Hershey visited the country over spring break. As part of the embedded course NURS 499: Foreign Study, students traveled to Havana, Cuba, to tour several health clinics and learn about the Cuban health care delivery system.
The goal was for the students to compare the Cuban system to the United States’ while also observing ways in which they can learn from Cuban practices.
“It’s part of the College of Nursing’s Strategic Plan that we increase our students’ academic travel, so they gain an increased understanding of diversity but also become more academically astute,” said Carolynn Masters, associate teaching professor of nursing at Penn State Behrend who traveled with the students to Havana. “Every day we were there, we were immersed in the health care system and the challenges the country faces. It was very altering to the students. You could see their eyes opening, and then their minds, and then their hearts.”
Cuba also places a strong emphasis on preventative health.
For instance, every community has its own doctor and nurse, who routinely check in with patients. This especially resonated with Penn State Behrend rising senior nursing major Carolyn Stirling.
“They do not have the resources we do and their facilities are not as developed, but they really do have a great system in place,” said Stirling, a Butler native. “Here, if a doctor does not hear back from a patient, they just go about their day, but in Cuba, they are big on following up. There’s such an emphasis on stopping an illness before it happens.”
While the main purpose of the trip was to observe the country’s health care system, students did find time to enjoy the culture. They took a cooking class in the fishing town El Cojimar, learned how to salsa dance, visited Havana’s Fábrica de Arte Cubano, went ziplining and spent time at a community center.
Students were grouped in pairs and lived with host families during the trip. Stirling and Cavanaugh stayed with a family who did not speak any English. The two would not have had it any other way.
“They did not speak any English, so it was really hard to understand them. There was also no Wi-Fi in the home for us to look up Spanish words,” Cavanaugh said. “But that’s what made it so great. Plus, we definitely were able to learn some Spanish from the experience.”
According to Masters, the College of Nursing plans to host the trip on an annual basis.
“Our goal is to do this every spring but take a different group of students,” Masters said. “It’s so important that we engage students in activities like this because in our society, they really do have to be global citizens.”