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Released April 16, 2004

By Angela Cutrer

HATTIESBURG -- Visiting Cuba is not something many Americans do. Dr. Sharyn Janes of The University of Southern Mississippi's School of Nursing never gets tired of the trip.

At least once a year she visits, and even when she's not on a mission for educating students, Janes still makes the journey. Every time she goes, she finds something else to take back with her, whether it's something someone says or something someone does or something someone gives her.

For her, every trip is the trip of a lifetime, and in May she'll once again experience the thrill of leaving Mississippi and feeling the wheels of an airplane touching the forbidden grounds of a small island so far south, yet so close to home.

"This will be my 10th trip in the last seven years," Janes, director of the School of Nursing, said of the scheduled May 20-30 trip with 21 students, three teaching professors and two researchers. The group will tour Cuba's health care system, which has been called a model structure.

"The World Health Organization has said that the way to meet the health care needs of the world's population is through communities, involving primary health care through prevention," said Janes, "and Cuba is the model for the world because it is prevention-based and the focus is on community, so every community member has health care."

Janes said a physician and nurse team live in each community and see patients at the local clinic and at the patients' homes. Whenever more care is needed, the patient is sent to an urgent-care type of clinic, and then on to a hospital, if necessary.

"(Cuba) doesn't have the technology we have but it has the same health care statistics because of its focus on prevention," Janes explained. "They might have one mammogram machine, so they take it to each community, which has been notified of its arrival. The people line up for the free scan."

All of this began back in 1997, when a few nursing faculty members went along with the economic development class that visited Cuba. Janes first brought students in 1998 and she made many contacts and agreements with nurses, working on relationships.

"Those (students) who do go (on the trip to Cuba) come back totally changed," Janes said. "Since America has no diplomatic relationship with Cuba, Americans don't know what Cuba is like, or what Cubans are like. (Cubans) are warm, welcoming, beautiful, happy people who say, 'Tell (American) people we are good people.' They have the wildest sense of humor and welcome the students with hugs and kisses. They don't shake hands professionally; they kiss each other on the cheeks and make a big 'to do' about it."

The students are required to create journals about their experiences and the most profound events they experience involve disabled children and adults.

"We visit a home for disabled children, mostly with Down Syndrome, who participate in Special Olympics. The children dress up in costumes and dance for us and the students are very impressed with that. We tour the grounds where the children make things for sale and farm their own food."

Another touching place to visit is the AIDS sanitarium. "Americans' impression of a sanitarium is of someone being 'locked away,'" Janes said. "Students get to the sanitarium in Cuba and see that the patients are taught to care for themselves and they are surrounded with beautiful grounds with a swimming area with its own beach." The sanitarium, indeed, is not something to be feared in Cuba. Many have tried to be admitted into it based on the lifestyle the patients lead, since, as anywhere, parts of Havana include overcrowded slums.

Janes said she has worked closely with Daisy Berdayes, who was associate dean and is now the dean of Julio Trigo Lopez School of Medical Sciences. Berdayes is the first nurse ever to become a dean of any medical sciences school in Cuba, where, by tradition, nurses and doctors take classes together for the first three years before splitting off into separate study.

"Dr. Janes has developed some close ties with nursing professionals in Cuba that expand our international focus and create opportunities for both faculty and our students," said the college's interim dean, Dr. Joan Exline.

Janes said women she has talked to in the Cuban communities don't understand why parents don't immunize. "They don't understand not immunizing. 'It protects (the) whole community,' they say to me," she said. "They are baffled by some Americans' refusal to immunize."

To visit Cuba, the university has a license from the U.S. Treasury Department for legal travel. The group travels on academic visas through the Ministry of Public Health in Cuba. Because no American airlines travel to Cuba, the group must book flights to Cuba through Marazul Charter Tours in New Jersey. The group flies from New Orleans to Cancun on American Airlines, and then flies Mexicana Airlines to Havana. "We have to use two separate travel agencies to get there," Janes said.

The University of Southern Mississippi School of Nursing is the only nursing school in America that participates in a Cuban Studies Program. "There are a lot of medical schools that participate, including Harvard, but we are the only nursing school."

When Janes was on sabbatical, she helped the Higher Institute of Medical Sciences begin its first master's degree program in nursing by teaching and consulting in the program. Now officials want to start a doctoral program for nurses, and they have asked Janes to be a consultant.

"They just graduated the first class of master's students," Janes said with a grin. She wouldn't say what her next career step was going to be, but it's easy to imagine her suitcase is already packed.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM