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Goodbye Baltimore, Hola Havana

Bloomberg School Health Advisory Board members share experiences and insights from a recent trip to Cuba
Posted May 7, 2015

The Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Advisory Board recently visited Cuba with Dean Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH (SPH ’87) and Nobel Prize winner, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, and Director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute Peter Agre, MD (Med ’74). Far from a typical meeting in a boardroom, they investigated the country’s health system, experienced its culture, and in the process, strengthened their bond as a group. 

Since 1995, the board has travelled the world together, including trips to Bangladesh, South Africa, Peru, and Uganda, where Bloomberg School faculty and students are hard at work. But the Cuba experience was different.

This was a foray into a new environment, where board members could examine a different system and consider what elements might be useful in informing their own efforts. The trip also served to energize the group as it guides the school through an exciting era: this year, the Bloomberg School marks its 100th anniversary.

Back home in the States, three participants reflected on the standout moments and how the trip will inspire their future efforts as public health advocates.

Robert W. Carr, MD, MPH (SPH ’85), has served on the advisory board for three years. With his wife, Eiko, he has created the Carr Family Humanitarian Scholarship for full-time MPH students. This trip was his first with the board.

C. Sylvia Brown has served on the board for 11 years. She and her husband, Eddie, created the C. Sylvia and Eddie C. Brown Community Health Scholarship Program at the Bloomberg School, which trains scholars interested in careers addressing health disparities in Baltimore. In 2013, they received honorary degrees from the university. 

Sylvia and Eddie are longtime participants on board trips. 

What was one of the highlights of the trip, an experience or insight that will stick with you?

Bob: Visiting the vaccine and biogenetic engineering institutes was very memorable. They have an impressive amount of vaccines and new products that they’ve created themselves. They have been able to be very focused on conditions in Cuba, and have been quite successful and impressive in their solutions. In all measures — neonatal, morbidity, access to medicine, infant mortality, elder care — they have better health outcomes than in the United States. That level of commitment to public health was impressive.

Eddie: I was struck by the fact that Cubans not only have universal health care that is accessible to everyone, but that health care is so high quality. It was also just a very exciting time to be there. The people were so excited about opening relations with the U.S. — the experience of seeing the transition in real time was unique. And, of course, the classic cars! The tour guide surprised us and we all drove to dinner one night in a line of old American cars. 

Sylvia: We saw an exceptional all-woman orchestra one night; had a chance to visit artists in their studios; and even spent the afternoon with Dr. Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, the son of Fidel Castro, who is the Scientific Advisor of the State Council and a prominent scientist. Throughout the trip, we were just struck by the warmth of the people and also their admiration for Peter Agre. It was a wonderful thing to see him being treated like a rock star.

How do trips like this inspire and impact your work for the Bloomberg School?

Bob: We created stronger connections among board members. The more we build our relationships, the more likely we are to listen, compromise, and learn from each other as we work together. After traveling together, it feels like we are with esteemed colleagues who are also friends.  It was also an important opportunity for Dean Klag and Bloomberg School staff to get to know us and the different ways we can add value to the school — there is learning on both sides.

Eddie: The Bloomberg School is the #1 School of Public Health in the world, operating in so many different countries. Through these trips we actually get to see that work in action. We’ve gone to villages and seen Bloomberg School of Public Health folks working side-by-side with locals to protect lives — millions at a time. It’s not just a motto when you witness it in person.  It’s a tremendous learning experience to see the work in action on the ground — not just reading about it or looking at slides.

Sylvia: Our trips come up in our advisory meetings – it’s the fun part, recalling the memories while we’re meeting to do board work. At the end of each trip we do limericks together to memorialize the experiences from the trip. There is a wonderful camaraderie. It’s obvious we all love the school and that we all feel honored to be a part of it together.