I found a surprise note on my desk after the morning clinic. It was a busy clinic with patients of various kidney and electrolyte problems including a challenging case of hypokalemia or low potassium.
At first it didn’t click. I read the note again,
Please call Nancy Alonso at———- she is in Miami waiting for your call.
It sure was her, her voice still strong.
We were a bunch of 18 year olds sitting in one of the new lecture halls awaiting to see the famous Cuban physiology professor. It was twenty six years ago in what then used to be called Jimma Institute of Health Sciences, one of the only three medical schools at the time, located in South West Ethiopia.
A sharp, intelligent and telegenic Cuban professor would walk in that morning and every morning for a year to lay the foundation for our education in medicine. There is no medicine without human physiology. There was no better professor than Nancy Alonso, in South West Ethiopia, where we had scarcity of educational materials.
She brought the complex human physiology in a way we could grasp and enjoy it. I still do.
It was a very volatile time in Ethiopia. The Cuban professors including Nancy had to leave after a change of government leaving a vacuum in the medical school which fortunately was temporary. With a strong foundation in physiology, most of the class of 89 went on to finish medical school. Some of us had the opportunity to pursue sub-specialty medical training in Ethiopia and beyond working now in private practice and academia, teaching the next generation of health providers. Among us are US board certified internists, cardiologists, endocrinologists, nephrologists, surgeons, to name a few.
I drove to Miami to pick her up. We were both thrilled to meet again.
She was dressed in an Ethiopian outfit and carrying a present for us, berbere, Ethiopian hot spice, and Teff, Ethiopian super grain, that she got in one of the Ethiopian stores.
After a cup of strong Cuban coffee, we drove to our house to spend the afternoon with my wife and daughter.
It was easy to see that Nancy Alonso’s two years in Ethiopia from 1989 to 1991 had left a lasting impression on her about the country, its people and culture. She told me that her experience in Ethiopia played a role in her becoming a writer. She also told me that she has an upcoming collection of short stories reflecting Africa. Most of her works are in Spanish but some are translated in to English.
We are testament that people like Nancy who travelled the world to teach did make a difference in the lives of many. Unfortunately some may not even know the impact they had on other’s lives.
This is a thank you note to Nancy Alonso, the Cuban biology professor and writer, for her contribution to our early education in physiology and medicine and for who we are today as a person.