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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | May 2008 

Tiny Med School Holds Big Dream
email this pageprint this pageemail usJohn MacCormack - San Antonio Express-News
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This school will never approach a U.S. medical school, but the mission will be different and I'm OK with that as long as the students are being taught at the level they need to be practicing physicians.
- Dr. Scott Cunningham
 
Nuevo Guerrero, Mexico — Housed in a borrowed school classroom in an isolated Mexican border village, the tiny Jose Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara School of Medicine is all about long odds and last chances.

Named for the 19th-century Mexican revolutionary and diplomat who at different times was governor of Tamaulipas state and provisional president of Texas, the school — now with eight students and one full-time professor — will soon celebrate its second anniversary.

And despite a rough first year that saw most students quit, professors fired, disputes flare over money and curriculum, a school name change and the forced closure of an affiliated medical school in the South Pacific, the quixotic endeavor may be finding its footing.

The school now enjoys the full support of Mexican governmental officials, and it may soon gain a critical listing on IMED, an international medical school directory, which would confer much needed legitimacy.

“It's open and it's going through the roof,” said founder Dr. Larry Sands, who decades ago earned his medical degree in Mexico.

Sands, who is backed by investors from nearby Zapata, has dreamed for 30 years of creating an affordable and accessible school for students who could not get into an American medical school.

His expansive vision — originally called the International Medical School of America — is to have hundreds of American students attending a new multimillion-dollar medical facility beside Falcon Reservoir, on land provided by the city government.

And while that is clearly years away, there are signs of progress. New professors are being interviewed and a remodeling is under way at the middle school to accommodate a large class expected this fall.

As a sign of Mexican support, a new director recently arrived to oversee a program for Mexican medical students.

“The goal is to create a prestigious medical school. In 10 years I can visualize a health-sciences complex, complete with research,” said Abel Morón Guzman, 58, a microbiologist and former medical school director in Matamoros.

“This is a marginal area, and it's very important for the state that this school succeed,” said Morón, who came out of retirement to take the job.

For the handful of American students who rolled the dice two years ago, some plunking down $25,000 to attend an unknown and unaccredited school halfway between Laredo and McAllen, there is a sense that they have survived the worst.

The arrival last fall of Dr. Scott Cunningham, who soon became the sole professor, has done much to build student faith.

“The first year it was a Mickey Mouse pre-medical school. You had to admire the students for coming back,” said Terri Kraus, 50, a grandmother who quit her job as a hospital administrator in Corpus Christi to attend.

“My heart says we're over the hump. Our dean is world-class. He's a very positive man,” she said of Cunningham, who commutes each week from Las Vegas to teach for four days in Mexico.

‘I took a chance'

Of the original seven students who began in July 2006, only two remain.

“It was a bit rocky at first, but I stuck it out. The bottom line is, we're still here,” said Sal DeLeon, 36, a respiratory therapist from San Antonio.

“We're going to be doctors. There is nothing but positive karma here,” he said during a recent classroom break.

In December, if all goes well, DeLeon and several others will graduate and then take their first round of medical exams, one of many critical hurdles in the long road to becoming a doctor.

The other surviving member of the inaugural class, Saul Enriquez, 47, sold a house and quit a good job in Corpus Christi as a hospital nurse to try to become a doctor.

“I understood the skepticism. I understood it was a gamble. But my dream wouldn't die,” he said of critics and second-guessers. “For me it was a gift. I took it. I took a chance. And it's going to become a reality.”

These three students ended up here because they stood no chance of getting into an American school. Last year, U.S. medical schools rejected 25,500 of the 42,300 students who applied.

“Quite frankly, it's almost impossible to get into med school on the U.S. side. But a lot of people who don't have a 3.5 GPA do have the ability to learn and become competent doctors,” said guest Professor Alfonso Martinez, 52, who got his medical education in Reynosa, Mexico.

The stark odds against getting into an American medical school has created a vast network of global alternatives. The Jose Bernardo Gutierrez school may be the newest and smallest on the block, but it is joining a crowded field.

Over the past three decades, dozens of “offshore” schools have sprung up, many in Caribbean nations, with several thousand Americans enrolling each year.

And while many foreign-educated students become doctors after passing their medical boards and completing their clinical and residency requirements, their path is far steeper.

“You have the challenges of moving overseas, the difficulties with financing, you have a lower pass rate for the licensing exams, and you have residency programs that simply won't accept any ‘off-shore' graduates,” said Richard Levy, 48, who works on Wall Street while harboring a dream of becoming a doctor.

Levy is a longtime member of the National Society for Non-traditional Premedical and Medical Students, better known by its Web address, OldPreMeds.org.

Even if a foreign-educated student passes all exams and completes a residency, he said, there is no guarantee of being licensed to practice medicine in many parts of the United States.

“It's like kosher. No matter what you do to the pig, it's still not kosher, and that's how some states treat some of these medical schools,” Levy said, adding that graduates of the tiny new school on the Texas border will face even more hurdles.

“The school is not recognized. No one has ever heard of it, and no one has any idea of the quality of the graduates. So they will have no cachet in applying for post-graduates programs. It will be particularly difficult for them,” he said.

Officials at the Texas Board of Medical Examiners say they will evaluate graduates of the new school if and when they apply for medical licenses in the state.

‘Voodoo school'

The school's early problems have fueled a nasty online debate, with one bickering thread going on for almost 50 pages and drawing more than 29,000 hits. Another incendiary thread about the school has had more than 12,000 visits.

The anonymous postings include name-calling, repeated predictions of doom and various accounts of classroom horrors in Nuevo Guerrero. In their postings, some ex-employees have scornfully dismissed the Nuevo Guerrero campus as everything from a “Nigerian oil” scam to a “voodoo school.” But others defend it just as fiercely.

Dr. Miguel Bedolla, 67, a well-known medical educator in San Antonio, began as a booster but left in early 2007 under unhappy circumstances.

“I was basically a high-level consultant. I discovered they did not know the fundamentals of organizing a medical school,” said Bedolla, who said questions about financial matters were the final straw.

“I walked away after a very stormy meeting with Dr. Sands,” he said.

But Cunningham, 53, who arrived last fall, thinks the school has a bright future.

“I almost feel like we really started last August, and I think we've done very well since then,” he said.

“Apparently last year they were taught at a very low level. They would study 30 minutes a day or so. To pass my exams, they have to study a minimum of 10 hours a day,” he said.

Cunningham has nothing but respect for the students he is teaching in primitive circumstances.

“When I look at this group of students, I wonder how bad I wanted to go to medical school,” he said.

Given a projected shortage of 200,000 doctors in the United States by 2020, and the slow growth of new medical schools in this country, he thinks enrollment at the now obscure school will grow exponentially once it is accredited and well-funded.

“This school will never approach a U.S. medical school, but the mission will be different and I'm OK with that as long as the students are being taught at the level they need to be practicing physicians,” he said.



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