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'How I met Castro' and other sea tales

With great intensity, Fidel Castro speaks to Doug Allderdice in Cuba in January. Allderdice was a physician for the University of Pittsburgh
With great intensity, Fidel Castro speaks to Doug Allderdice in Cuba in January. Allderdice was a physician for the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea program, which took them to Cuba as part of their 105-day journey.
— image credit: submitted photo

Not many doctors can say they've been poked in the chest by Fidel Castro, but Doug Allderdice can.

Allderdice, a Langley physician who works for the Emergency Physicians Medical Group in Everett, returned May 6 from a 105-day trip as a traveling physician. He was hired by the University of Pittsburgh for one of their three Semester at Sea programs a year on the USS Universe Explorer. The ship's first stop was in Cuba, where Castro spoke to the traveling students and staff at the University of Havana.

On this, one of the most unusual assignments a doctor can get, it was an accident, Allderdice said, that he was able to personally meet Castro.

While in Cuba, one of the students on the trip was involved in a car accident. Allderdice escorted the student to a hospital. Once there, Allderdice asked to observe surgery on the student, who had suffered a fractured femur and hip.

The next day, after President Castro had finished a three-hour speech to the university group, Allderdice was making his way out of the auditorium when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

He was told Fidel Castro wanted to meet him.

He was escorted to meet Castro, who had heard about the car accident involving an American student. He wanted to discuss the future of medicine in Cuba with Allderdice.

Allderdice said he shook hands with Castro, then stood with the man known as "El Heffe" as he spoke with the program's directors, the ship's captain and a translator for 45 minutes.

"He kept poking me in the chest to make his point," Allderdice said. "He never blinked ... It was intense."

Allderdice said he told Castro he was impressed with the medical care in Cuba. He said Castro appreciates speaking to the American students because he sees them as important political messengers.

Allderdice was able to give the Cuban dictator a positive assessment of what he had seen of the nation's medical system.

"I told him I saw very good surgical care in Cuba," he said.

Aboard the USS Universe Explorer

While Castro may have been the high point of the university trip, there was almost never a dull moment during the remainder of the semester at sea. The Explorer -- with its approximately 650 students, 150 faculty members and ship staff of 100 employees -- also made stops in Brazil, South Africa, Tanzania, India, Japan, South Korea, Japan, Alaska and Victoria, B.C.

During those travels, the people on board had plenty of warning of what wonders, and hazards, lay ahead.

"SARS was the biggest story," Allderdice said.

He said they were en route to China when they heard the county's SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) might warrant rerouting the ship.

"There was something big going on and it hadn't been thoroughly investigated," Allderdice said. "That became my job."

Allderdice formed a study group on the ship to evaluate whether or not traveling to China and India would be worth the risk. Each day the group pooled its information to make a decision, without the help of turning on the evening news to keep them updated.

With 900 people relying on Allderdice and his study group, the Explorer passed on going to China and India.

"It was a huge disappointment," he said of his necessary decision.

But it was a decision well made. If one person had contracted SARS, Allderdice said, it would have increased the risk to the other passengers by 900 times. If even one person got ill, they would all run the risk of being quarantined to the ship.

The Explorer substituted an added stop in Japan, a stop in Alaska and a stop in Victoria, B.C. for the loss of China and India. Also changed were early plans to visit Venezuela and Kenya as well.

The Explorer left from Nassau in the Bahamas on Jan. 21 and returned May 6 to Seattle. Approximately half of the trip's 105 days was spent at sea, according to Allderdice.

He said students are expected to take a full load of classes to keep up with their academics. Students take many types of courses aboard ship, Allderdice said, but nothing that requires a lab course.

Forty-five professors taught classes at sea each day. A global studies class was, understandably, mandatory for students. Once in port students were free to explore as they wanted while in a country. Trips were organized, so students could depart on a trip, or simply explore on their own itinerary. Some stops, Allderdice said, could last as long as six days. That suited the good doctor and his wife, Jan -- who came along on the trip -- just fine.

"It was really quite fun to do your own exploring," Allderdice said.

The cost for the trip was approximately $15,000 per student and included room and board and tuition fees.

Allderdice said he applied to the program after thinking about it for many years. He said his credentials in emergency medicine helped him get the position.

Once chosen, Allderdice was then asked to pick two nurse practitioners and a nurse out of a pile of applicants to the program.

Summing it up, now that is back in Langley, Allderdice was almost at a loss for words.

"It was a wonderful trip," Allderdice said. "I've been wanting to do this for a number of years."

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