Cuban med school program helps dreams come true

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The Dallas Examiner

Since Darnna Banks was a little girl she has been focused on one dream – a dream that almost seemed impossible for a little girl growing up in Oak Cliff.

“I have wanted to be a doctor since I was 6,” Banks said. “My decision was influenced by the interactions with my own pediatrician. Due to asthma I had frequent visits to the hospital as a child and each interaction with the pediatricians was motivating. I recognized it at an early age as a place of healing. The care and compassion they demonstrated was what I wanted to do.”

Banks attended Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy in Oak Cliff and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts where her discipline was theater arts. She performed both for the school and professionally throughout high school. As an upperclassman, she earned dual credits at three of the Dallas County Community College District campuses. She was the recipient of the Rising Star Scholarship, which allowed her to receive free college tuition and books. During that time, she also volunteered at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. Her four years of service made her the first teen volunteer to dedicate over 1500 hours. In 2004, she graduated in the top 10 percent of her class.

From 2004 to 2008, she received scholarships to attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and a Bachelor of Arts in Theater.

That summer, she attended the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras to complete her credit hours for a minor certificate in Spanish.

While planning for medical school, she learned about a program that would pay her tuition at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba. In exchange, she would agree to use her degree to serve a community in need.

Banks noted that she shared a room with 10 other female med students, the curriculum was taught entirely in Spanish and all of the students wore uniforms – blue tops and pants or skirts and a white jacket.

“But I didn’t mind,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry what clothes I should wear every day.”

Yet, her biggest challenge was something she could not have prepared for – the Cuban lifestyle.

“Living in Cuba was great and not so great at the same time. It was great being able to live in such a vibrant culture, see the architecture of a country stuck in time. Learning medicine in a place whose priority is prevention with special attention on natural medicine and holistic comprehensive care was great because that is the type of physician that I want to be,” Banks said. “On the other hand, Cuba was difficult to live in at times. I definitely learned how to find a way. At times the lights would go out and not come back on for hours. Oftentimes it would be in the evenings during critical study hours. So I learned how to use a headlamp much like the ones for camping. I would put in my AAA battery and strap it around my head and continue to study until the lights came back on.

“There was no hot water on demand coming from the pipes whenever you turned the knob. I learned how to do like in the old days and heat water on a portable stove and take a bucket shower. It sounds bizarre to people my age but in reality I have not lived through nothing that my ancestors haven’t already lived through and if they could do it then so could I.”

She was also inspired by knowledge that she stood on the shoulders of those who have come before her.

“What motivated me was the thought that ‘if those [graduates] before me could do it, then so can I,’” Banks contended. “I was also motivated by the fact that I was determined not to return home to my mother without having a MD behind my name. She has worked so hard and sacrificed so much for me to get to where I am that she has always been the source of my motivation to make her proud and excel.”

In August 2015, she returned to the United States with a degree in general medicine and a plan to keep her promise of service – applying for pediatric residency where she felt she was needed most.

“I have interviewed at UT Southwestern in Dallas,” Banks explained. “It would be an ideal place to further my medical training because Children’s Hospital has been everything to me. [It was] the place where I received pediatric care and the place where I volunteered to give back to my community.”

She is proud to be the first female in her immediate family to complete college, and the first person in her family’s history to receive a medical degree.

“I never thought any of it was financially possible given that we have always been a low-income family,” she admitted.

Banks said she feels very blessed and fortunate to have had the experiences and education in Cuba. She was the first student to be accepted from Dallas.

Ten years from now she sees herself as a pediatrician sub-specializing in infectious disease and working in global health. Banks wants to dedicate her medical knowledge and willpower to render medical care to developing nations and disaster relief.

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