Debt at med school - UWI student doctors fear dropout because they cannot afford fees

Published: Sunday | September 11, 2011 Comments 0

Janet Silvera, Senior Gleaner Writer

WESTERN BUREAU:

Samantha Smith will be the first homegrown medical doctor in Madras, St Ann, and Andrea Salmon hopes to rewrite history in the inner-city community of Rockfort if she finds money to buy books, lab tools and diabetic medication.

The two, straight-A students, enrolled in the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies, Mona, are among the country's poorest who now have access to bettering their lives, but experience incomparable suffering trying to make ends meet.

Highly placed sources say as many as one-third of the 300 students (120 of them Jamaicans) enrolled in this faculty had not paid their school fees at the start of school year last week, "because they can't afford to". The fees average J$10 million over five years, with each student having to fork out approximately J$1.6 million annually.

Some 80 Jamaicans get help in the form of scholarships, grants or bursaries from the Government, and the university itself. Others rely on the Students' Loan Bureau as their primary source of funding. And in every case, families, friends, community groups or church organisations fill a void. Invariably, those without strong financial support from their families are most at risk and many barely survive on the fringes, living each day from, or from less than, hand to mouth.

Dean in the faculty of medicine, Professor Archibald McDonald, denies knowledge of so many students not paying their fees. "I am not aware of that," he told The Sunday Gleaner with conviction. However, he admitted that many Jamaicans do struggle to pay their fees. "Even the average middle-class Jamaican finds it difficult to pay, and that is why the Faculty of Medical Sciences now has to be giving them loans," he added, noting that an expansion of the faculty allowed it that mileage.

Hanging on to her dream

Twenty-four-year-old Samantha Smith, whose mother is a domestic helper and who holds a first degree in biochemistry with first-class honours, has had 80 per cent of her tuition sponsored by the Government but is, nonetheless, one of the students unable to pay.

Smith is unable to come up with a balance of J$500,000. Still, notwithstanding the heavy burden she bears, and the uncertainty she endures, she sits in the classes every day and borrows books from other med students, and remains hopeful that she will be able to complete her programme of study, although she has no school fees.

"The moment you give up on your dream is the moment you die," says Smith, who is from a community where the men farm and the women remain housewives.

She has never met her father and with her mother being a domestic helper, she says the little the woman who fathered her gets is only enough to buy food.

"I want to become a medical doctor and nothing is going to stop me," she declares. "Even if I leave university now, I will return to the classroom because medicine is my passion."

The 24-year-old, who is accommodated by a friend who helps to feed her, says: "I just eat to survive right now, but I am not eating healthy," she admits. Bent on not giving up, Smith says she has written to the bauxite company in St Ann, other companies such as Digicel, GraceKennedy, and a number of offices on the university campus seeking help. She was able to sit CXC subjects at high school because OBF Finance paid for them.

Smith has applied for the IGL and Emancipation scholarships. "If I don't get any of the scholarships, I will continue to sit in class," she states. Incidentally, this would be the second time that she wouldn't be able to pursue her programme of study after having accepted a place in med school.

In the case of 23-year-old Rockfort resident Andrea Salmon, she would be the first medical doctor from this inner-city community where drive-by shootings are the norm and getting low dodging bullets mean nothing. "I have expe-rienced everything," she declares.

As challenging and traumatic as it is to live in Rockfort, one of Andrea's biggest challenges is living with Type 1 diabetes, a disease she was diagnosed with at age 10, which is suffered by every member of her family. Her condition and the effects of which she is well aware is one of the reasons she wants to specialise in endocrinology and work with children.

Unlike Smith, Salmon's school fees have been paid, and she is on her way to becoming a doctor. However, she has no books or tools for the lab and needs money to purchase her insulin syringes, which she uses sometimes for two weeks, even though they should be discarded after the first use.

"Even now, I want to do the testing, but need books as well, and it is so expensive to purchase the needles."

Andrea should be using her syringes twice per day. However, "Sometimes I use them so long the lines start rubbing off," she said.

"I have to be calling persons to ask them to buy me a book. If you don't have the books and tools, you will be at a disadvantage," she tells The Sunday Gleaner.

Books, lab coats, dissecting kits, and a microscope are about $100,000. The microscope cost about US$300, and the bones (for anatomy) are also very expensive, but can be rented.

The first-year student said she had a problem just coming up with the $35,000 to pay the insurance.

Andrea's situation is so compelling, the university, she says, is trying to give her a bursary, but in the meantime, the youngster goes through two bottles of strips per month and must find a way to sustain that. The rest of her diabetic medication is made possible by the National Health Fund, which subsidises them.

Salmon, who describes herself as a coward, says the way she will get out of Rockfort is through education, "Because I am a coward, I will not steal or commit a crime to acquire wealth, so it has to be through education. That is why I push myself so hard."

A natural high achiever, Salmon says she will be in the top three in her class and will become a medical doctor.

Up to 40 years ago, access to the Faculty of Medical Sciences was extremely difficult, particularly for poor Jamaicans, with the university taking no more than 100 students annually. Today, with the expansion, the faculty accepts 300 students per year, 100 from Trinidad, a few from places such as Botswana and the USA, and 120 from Jamaica.

janet.silvera@gleanerjm.com

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