Onto the next challenge: Coast Guard recruit Dr. Angel Valles-Bravo

This article is also available in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 1, 2018.

Written by Anastasia Devlin

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Angel Valles-Bravo works on fellow

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Angel Valles-Bravo works on fellow students as part of his coursework at Health Services Technician class “A” school in Petaluma, Calif. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

It’s not unusual to hear a Coast Guardsman say, “I learned a lot about emergencies, working with almost nothing for resources,” or “You have to work with what you have, and try to help everybody.” Although, they’re not usually talking about treating gunshot victims. Dr. Angel Valles-Bravo, 29, was born and raised in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. He said he remembered the medical field calling to him at a young age.

“I’ve always like being able to help people in need,” said Valles-Bravo. “My grandpa told me I should have a vocation [where I] help others. It was because of him that I thought about it; I chose it, and I’ve never regretted it.”

After six years of medical school, Valles-Bravo traveled from Cuba to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, to serve in a medical program called Barrio Adentro, which was part of an agreement between the two governments. There, he worked at an emergency clinic helping the poorer members of the community, providing cradle-to-grave treatment for those who couldn’t afford access to medical care. There, the young physician was baptized by fire.

“There was so much violence in Venezuela,” he said. “I was treating gun shots, knife wounds, car accidents. I learned a lot about emergency medicine.”

Though this wasn’t his first time experiencing limited resources, it certainly presented challenges.

“Sometimes, I’d think, ‘What am I going to do? I need this. I don’t have this,'” said Valles-Bravo, referring to equipment or tests he needed for his patients. “Sometimes it was frustrating, but we’d have to go back to old-school [methods].”

“You’d have to improvise a lot.”

Dr. Angel Valles-Bravo holds his diploma after graduating from medical school in Cuba in 2013. Photo courtesy of Petty Officer Valles-Bravo.

Dr. Angel Valles-Bravo holds his diploma after graduating from medical school in Cuba in 2013. Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Valles-Bravo.

Work at the clinic was exhausting, and the area he lived in was dangerous — he was robbed twice during his 15 months there.

Things began to change for him when his grandfather passed away in Cuba. Valles-Bravo was devastated, and the government would not allow him to leave his post at the clinic to attend the funeral. Eight months later, Valles-Bravo crossed the border into Colombia, and he applied at the U.S. Embassy as a Cuban refugee.

In pursuit of freedom, Valles-Bravo had to leave behind his pursuit of a career in medicine, and because of his defection, he would be prevented from re-entering his home country for eight years.

In the U.S., he moved to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and began working as a substitute teacher, but his passion for his craft simmered under the surface. He decided to see if he could scratch the itch a little, as well as get help with becoming a citizen of the U.S. He visited his local recruiters. There, he met Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Blaine Meserve-Nibley.

“I wanted to make sure he understood the commitment he was making,” said Meserve-Nibley, a Reserve recruiter at the time. “I said as [a health services technician (HS)] you won’t have the same responsibilities as what you had as a doctor in Cuba and Venezuela, and we went over the roles of a junior HS.”

The recruiter remembered that Valles-Bravo put out a hand and said, “Blaine, I get it, it’s okay.” He understood he wouldn’t be a doctor in the Coast Guard, but he wanted to serve.

After completing a three-week basic training program at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, New Jersey, Valles-Bravo started a 23-week-long class “A” school in Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma, California, in summer 2017.

The course instructors noted a man who was quiet and definitely over qualified for their course. Pulling the doctor back from his mindset of addressing the problem, given his knowledge and background, proved to be a challenge.

Chief Petty Officer Elias Gomez, the Health Services Technician “A” School course chief, has spent 15 years as an HS. He said the instructors worked with Valles-Bravo to help him trust their resources and learn the steps of being a medical assistant. He knew they would be testing the doctor on jobs that, in the past, he’d have assigned to someone in the clinic. “But we face those challenges all the time,” said Gomez, noting that while Valles-Bravo is one of the more qualified students to come through the course, the Coast Guard often brings in people with medical backgrounds: nurses, paramedics, aides, therapists, and many with degrees and certifications from every state. They all bring with them their own ways of doing medical techniques. It’s a task the course chief is ready for.

“You can’t overthink it,” said Gomez. “We’ve encountered those barriers before, but the instructors are there to ensure [the students’] success.”

It isn’t always easy to bring all that talent under one standard, but, because subsequent “C” schools build on standardized “A” school training, all students, regardless of background, need to adhere to the Coast Guard’s approach. Valles-Bravo was no exception.

“The instructors were very knowledgeable; they always tried to push everyone to be more prepared for the outside,” he said. “Sometimes it was a little frustrating because I knew these things, but I looked at it as a refresher.”

His mentor during the class was another instructor, Petty Officer 1st Class Roy Mesen Scott, an HS with 18 years of experience. Mesen Scott, who was born in Costa Rica, shared an important bond with Valles-Bravo — the two men had both learned English as their second language.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Angel Valles-Bravo works on patients

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Angel Valles-Bravo works on patients during a mass casualty exercise in spring 2017 at Health Services Technician class “A” school in Petaluma, Calif. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Mesen Scott laughed, remembering how sometimes Valles-Bravo couldn’t think of the words for a technique in English, and they’d discuss in Spanish for a while, but even in Spanish, sometimes the doctor’s medical knowledge was above Mesen Scott’s skillset. He worked with Valles-Bravo to help him stop jumping ahead in the process – a difficulty for a doctor who’s used to doing emergency medicine where he wasn’t afforded the luxury of time.

“I knew his knowledge was there,” said Mesen Scott. “He understood the nuances of the patient-provider conversation, like alcohol usage, exercise, and smoking. We [HSs] have 19 steps from, ‘What brings you in?’ to ‘Do you have a family history of diabetes, cancer?’ But for him, when he asks those questions, you can tell he’s got more knowledge, [and] he’ll go further than he needs to because of his experience. He puts the answers and conditions together in a way that we didn’t think of.”

After months of school, Valles-Bravo graduated and reported to his new unit, the clinic at Coast Guard Base Portsmouth. He said the experience of “A” school was both humbling and a good refresher.

Not surprising, his favorite part was the first few weeks, in which the HS students ride along with the TRACEN paramedics on emergency calls. Assisted by fellow Coast Guardsmen from TRACEN Petaluma, he’s actively working on getting his transcripts from medical school in Cuba.

“I miss it every day, but I’ve made my peace with it,” he said. “I’m working hard to make my goal of practicing again come true. If everything goes well, I can be taking the boards this year.”

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