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Kenya Bingham, right, of Oakland, shares a moment with friends Latanya Millican, left, and her parents Izola and Pastor Felton Millican during a gathering celebration for Bingham at Zazoo's Restaurant in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday Oc. 6, 2007. Bingham recently graduated from a medical school in La Havana, Cuba, where she lived six years. (Ray Chavez/The Oakland Tribune)
There is one thing Kenya Bingham lacks that most newly minted doctors have more than their share of: debt.

Instead of attending a U.S. program where the average graduate leaves $115,000 in debt, the Alameda native went to medical school in Havana, becoming one of the first U.S. citizens to graduate from the free program sponsored by the Cuban government.

The program is called the Latin American School of Medicine, an internationally certified medical school that started in 1999 to help Latin American countries devastated by hurricanes Mitch and Georges.

Along with eight fellow U.S. citizens (three from California, four from New York and one from Minnesota), Bingham studied medicine with a full scholarship.

An Oakland woman, Carmen Landau, also was among the group.

Bingham received tuition, room, board, books, toiletries and pocket money — all paid for by Cuba's Fidel Castro, who has been at or near the top of this country's list of enemies for nearly half a century.

Applicants to the program, who come mostly from LatinAmerica, the Caribbean and Africa, are warned that the accommodations are far from luxurious: shared, spartan dorms and lots of beans and rice and other basic Cuban fare.

The program, devised by Castro and now enrolling nearly 9,000 students, aims at changing the equation that harnesses young physicians with debt, creates a barrier for students of color and working class backgrounds, and leaves the health care needs of poor communities unmet.

Minorities made up only 12 percent of medical school population in the United States in 2003, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The 29-year-old African-American Bingham said she was determined to be a doctor with or without the free program.

But combining her love of Spanish with her goal of becoming a doctor was like a dream come true, Bingham said while surrounded by friends and family at a Saturday graduation celebration in Oakland.

"It seemed like it was almost too good to be true," she said in describing how she found out six years ago during a study abroad program in Barbados that she had been accepted.

Weeks later, she was on her way. She never had time to apply to other medical schools.

The only catch to the Latin American Medical School was a nonbinding agreement that students commit to working two years in a public health clinic in underserved communities in their countries.

Bingham said she didn't need more than the verbal commitment she made to pursue public health.

"Why wouldn't I want to serve people who need health care?"

Bingham graduated in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in Spanish language and literature from the University of California, Berkeley.

That was the year the Latin American Medical School program opened up to U.S. students, after members of the Congressional Black Caucus visited Cuba, where health care is universally accessible but bare-bones in terms of technology and equipment.

Seeing how much the Cuban doctors do with so few resources was one of the biggest surprises, Bingham said.

The program was hands-on, she added. "Treating patients, delivering babies — that was the best thing ever."

The first group of students from the United States arrived in Cuba in 2001, despite a ban on travel to Cuba for most U.S. citizens and an economic, financial and commercial embargo that has been in place for 45 years.

The U.S. government imposed the blockade after Fidel Castro, who led the 1959 revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed Batista regime, took control of U.S. properties, particularly the American Fruit Co.

The State Department, however, has verbally backed the medical program.

The California medical licensing board began recognizing the Cuban medical program only after Bingham already was in Havana. She said she was told that by the time she graduated six years later, the process would be complete.

Politics and an aging infrastructure made the six years Bingham spent in Havana a bit harder because she had more difficulty getting care packages and communicating with friends or family in the United States than students from other countries, she said. 

But she said she refused to "Cuba bash."

"I'm now an M.D., and it's because of the Cuban government," she said.

It was her family, however, that inspired her.

Bingham's mother, Kathy Bingham, a medical assistant and licensed vocational nurse, sparked her interest in medicine.

Also, education and the church were key elements in the family's life, said her brother Brian Bingham, who is studying for his master's degree in social work at California State University, East Bay, campus in Hayward.

A younger sister, Jovon Bingham, is studying for a bachelor's in nursing, also at California State University, East Bay.

Their father, Berry Bingham, was the first elected school board member in history of Alameda, where the family lived.

"They really pushed education and for us to exceed expectations. Failing was not an potion. Not doing well was not an option," Brian Bingham said.

Kenya Bingham said she wants to work in Africa or Guatemala someday.

But first, she must pass medical board examinations and apply for residency, preferably in obstetrics and gynecology or in emergency medicine, she said.

Highland Hospital's trauma center would her No. 1 pick, she added.

Angela Woodall can be reached at

awoodall@bayareanewsgroup.com.