A Phoenix resident, Bernadine Pillay, who left for Cuba at the age of 21 to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, received a warm and overwhelming welcome upon returning recently to South Africa six years later.

Pillay reunited with her family at King Shaka International Airport where they carried a big banner with the message ‘Welcome home Berny’.

Pillay is one of the 260 students who were awarded a bursary by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health to study medicine in Cuba. Speaking to The Phoenix Tabloid, Pillay said, “I arrived at the airport to a very excited and anxious crowd of loved ones who anticipated our arrival. The feeling upon seeing my family and friends as the doors opened was breathtaking and a moment I will treasure forever. This was a bitter-sweet moment, as much as I am ecstatically happy to be home after 6 years away, there is a part of me that will always miss Cuba as it formed an integral part of my life. Words cannot explain the feeling of happiness and joy but most of all the support and proud feeling that you get from family, friends and even the community you grew up in. To be told ‘We are proud of you’ is enough to make the 6 years in Cuba, whether they were good or bad moments, worth it.”

Pillay will complete her final year of medicine in a South African medical school, where she will study for 18 months and then do her 2 years of internship and 1 year of community service. “I grew up in a community with the only healthcare being public hospitals. Seeing my loved ones and community leave home in the early hours of the morning to stand in long queues to get treatment made me wonder what I could do to make this process better in the future. Hence, my dream was to one day study medicine and help improve public healthcare for the betterment of communities like mine. My mum always taught me not to stand aside and watch people suffer but go out there and help. And this is my way of doing just that,” said Pillay.

She mentioned some of the challenges which she faced while away from home. She said, “The biggest challenge for me was being away from home. I come from a home where family means a lot and this is the first time I was away from them. Initially it was difficult not being able to see them and watch my siblings grow as I am the eldest, but, as difficult as that was, I managed to overcome it all and push through. My parents taught me from a young age to never give up and always strive for what I want in life because any sacrifice pays off in the end, and indeed, they where right. My parents’ lessons and words of support everyday helped me to get through the most challenging days in Cuba,” said Pillay.

She said that her parents and community were her greatest motivation throughout her medical studies. She said, “I want to sincerely thank my parents for their undying love, support and motivation and for constantly pushing me and believing in me at all times.”

At the homecoming ceremony for the Cuba-trained medical students, KZN Health MEC, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, said, “This is a historic and profoundly significant moment in the country’s history, as the return of these students will increase the Province’s capacity to deliver healthcare to the public, including far-flung rural areas where global shortage of doctors is felt acutely.”
Dhlomo added that the students’ homecoming carried more significance as it coincided with the celebration of the centenary year of struggle hero, Nelson Mandela, and Mama Albertina Sisulu, who was a nurse and later became a prominent anti-apartheid activist.