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The island of St. Martin in the Caribbean was the most beautiful place 24-year-old Manpreet Mahal of Northville had ever seen when she arrived there Sept. 1 to attend medical school.

Five days later, she said, “It went from paradise to hell overnight.”

Mahal was among scores of Michigan medical students who rode out Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6, hunkered down in a classroom building at American University of the Caribbean, one of the oldest and most respected medical schools in the region.

Many were there with parents and family members to attend the cherished “white coat” ceremony that welcomes new future doctors. About 80 percent of the school’s 400 student are American, with 121 from Michigan, with the rest mostly from Canada.

The hurricane demolished many buildings and homes, shut off electricity and caused shortages of food and water on the island that is divided between the French and Dutch governments.

Though some students have complained about conditions at the school following the storm, Mahal said it was “like a five-star hotel compared to what people on the island were going through.”

American University of the Caribbean has endured many hurricanes since its founding in 1978, but nothing like the Category 5 storm, AUC spokeswoman Shannon Toher.

“This was one of the worst recorded over the Atlantic in history,” said Toher, adding the last of the students were evacuated last weekend. “It’s definitely been the most severe weather issue that we’ve dealt with.”

AUC has faced a social media storm over its handling of the hurricane. Posts from dozens of students said they were discouraged from evacuating, and suffered while waiting days for rescue by the U.S. military, ferry boats and other means arranged by the school.

The school, which had a three-day stockpile of food and water on hand, secured additional bottled water and food when rescue took days longer than expected, Toher said. A generator provided power for lights and cooking, though not for toilet flushing and showers, she said, while security personnel obtained buckets of water from outside every day to flush the toilets.

In an internet town hall with students Friday, AUC Dean Heidi Chumley said fall classes will take place at an as-yet undisclosed medical school in the United Kingdom. Classes will resume Sept. 29.

In the meantime, many students were transported to Chicago, where AUC is covering their food and lodging costs and providing counselors for those who need help processing what they’ve gone through. They’ve paid for one-way plane tickets for students, like Mahal, who wanted to go home.

Mahal said she is happy her education will continue, but will miss the island paradise she enjoyed briefly.

“When I saw St. Martin, I was in awe that something could be so beautiful. There were palm trees, mountains, the skies were blue, the waters were dark turquoise — it was amazing,” said Mahal, whose mother also endured the storm.

“Everyone was so friendly and welcoming. It’s something that’s difficult to describe because it’s so different from the culture we have back in the states. Every home is like grandma’s home; they welcome you with big hugs and smile.”

After the storm, Mahal was saddened to know her new friends on the island had nothing left of their homes and businesses.

“We saw cars on top of each other. ... Apartment buildings were floored. ... There was debris everywhere, there were dead birds,” she said. “It looked like a war zone.”

The devastation occurred at a time when Caribbean medical schools are gaining acceptance as an alternative for American students who would like to become doctors but aren’t accepted into American medical schools. Many medical students complete their residency training at Metro Detroit hospitals.

This year, 27 medical school graduates from American University of the Caribbean began their residencies in Michigan, most at Metro Detroit health systems. More than 400 AUC alumni are practicing medicine across the state, the university said.

Many students at American medical schools aren’t interested in becoming primary care physicians at a time when such doctors are in short supply across the United States, said Dr. Mark Paschall, director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit.

And they often don’t plan to settle down in Michigan — a recruiting priority for Metro Detroit hospitals.

Of the 21 current St. John residents, 10 attended Caribbean medicals. Six are Americans, including several from Michigan, and the rest are from Canada, according to St. John Hospital.

Caribbean school medical students often are older than those accepted at American medical schools. They often have had other careers before deciding to become doctors and may be married with kids, Paschall said.

He said the average board exam scores of students from the three Caribbean medical schools from which St. John recruits — AUC, St. George’s University School of Medicine in Grenada, and Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica — are comparable with those from American medical schools.

“They understand that as they are applying for residencies, they might not be looked at as favorably as a U.S. grad and so they need to work a little bit harder to get their scores higher — to try to compensate for that perception,” Paschall said.

At the St. John Family Medical Center in St. Clair Shores, Chief Resident Dr. Daniel Rusinow II, a Grosse Pointe native, said he plans to stay in Michigan and practice primary care medicine. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan.

“I always wanted to take care of all ages from tiny newborns to old people and didn’t want to limit myself to some specialty,” Rusinow said. “I’m from here originally, and it makes a difference for me to be able to stay here so you can connect with people and they can connect with you.”

Rusinow looked into AUC after not getting many interview requests from American medical schools. He applied for and received financial aid just like at any other medical school, he said.

“It did have its challenges being on a Caribbean island,” Rusinow said. “Coincidentally, my first week at medical school there was a hurricane, and obviously with Irma passing through, it’s something I can relate to.”

KBouffard@detroitnews.com

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