A grad’s journey from Cuba and conflict zones to CU Anschutz

One cold afternoon, Ivan Quintana Hijano walked through the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. The chilly temperature brought back memories of the first time he visited Colorado.

It was nothing like his native Cuba, where Quintana Hijano was an oral and maxillofacial surgeon before emigrating to the U.S. in 2011. Or East Timor, where he spent two years operating on patients injured during the county’s struggle for independence. He was the nation’s only oral and maxillofacial surgeon and was on call 24/7.

Ivan Quintana Hijano
Ivan Quintana Hijano in the CU Anschutz School of Dental Medicine. Quintana Hijano is a Cuban immigrant and graduated with honors from the Advanced Standing International Student Program.

On Friday, Quintana Hijano, a student in the School of Dental Medicine’s Advanced Standing International Student Program, will graduate near the top of his class. He’ll earn his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree, which is necessary for Quintana Hijano to practice in the U.S.

It also sets up his next step—getting into a four-year residency program for oral and maxillofacial surgeons. That would allow Quintana Hijano, 39, to restart a career that he has loved as long as he can remember.

“I remember I was playing on the street one day and there was a car accident. I saw this guy bleeding all over the place,” Quintana Hijano said. He wondered what doctors would do to save and heal the man, and it was the start of a career. “Since I was a kid, I wanted to be a facial surgeon. I told my mom when I was 5, ‘when I grow up, I want to do that.’”

Now, after putting on hold a career that has spanned oceans and continents so he could start a new life in America, Quintana Hijano is a big step closer to performing surgeries and helping patients. Again.

“Nothing comes without effort”

The Advanced Standing International Student Program offers dentists who have earned their degrees in foreign countries the opportunity to earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. Graduates of the two-year accelerated program are able to take any state or regional board exam, and thus are eligible for licensure to practice in the U.S. This program accepts 40 students each year.

“It was really tough decision,” Quintana Hijano said.  “I’m really attached to my folks. I didn’t know when I was going to see them again, because I would be banished for leaving Cuba.”

Quintana Hijano said Cuba produces well-trained dentists, doctors and surgeons—just not many of them, especially in the past few decades, because spots in Cuba’s top universities and medical schools are limited. Students have to compete for top scores each step of the way to have a shot at getting the few specialist jobs available each year. The path included multiple “make-or-break” national exams, where elite students are ranked and get to pick their profession.

“I said, ‘I have to excel to do this,’” Quintana Hijano said.

Quintana Hijano was ultimately accepted into the oral surgery and maxillofacial program at the Cienfuegos General Hospital, affiliated to the Higher Institute of Medical Sciences of Villa Clara, Cienfuegos’ Campus. He trained and practiced in Cuba, before its government sent him on a humanitarian mission to East Timor, a nation on an island between Indonesia and Australia. East Timor had just won independence from Indonesia after a long-running guerrilla war that ended a brutal occupation.

Quintana Hijano was the only oral and maxillofacial surgeon in East Timor. He performed reconstructive surgeries on people injured in the war or in accidents. He also trained medical students and translated the Ministry of Health’s national guidelines into Spanish to be used by the Cuban medical personnel and to help educate 1,000 new East Timorese doctors.

Additionally, he attended weekly meetings with the Minister of Health and other staff to discuss the nation’s health care strategies.

Coming to America, finding Colorado

Quintana Hijano would return to Cuba and practice for a few years before going to Venezuela in 2010 on another humanitarian mission. Over time, a feeling began growing that his future would not be in Cuba. The strain of not being able to say what you think and other stresses were taking a toll.

“It was really tough decision,” Quintana Hijano said.  “I’m really attached to my folks. I didn’t know when I was going to see them again, because I would be banished for leaving Cuba.”

The decision also could have ended his career.

“I had to put aside what I loved, doing surgeries. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it again,” Quintana Hijano said. “But I was ready to come here, roll up my sleeves and do whatever [it took].”

In October 2011, Quintana Hijano made the stressful 40-hour trip, which took him through several countries before he arrived in the U.S. Quintana Hijano declined to give details, because Cubans still make that voyage and the authorities watch. He also declined to discuss the relationship between his new home and his old one and what the future might hold.

But Quintana Hijano is clear about his love for the people of Cuba and the beauty of the country.

“It’s a really nice society and a beautiful country. The people are friendly, people are really willing to help you at any time, and anywhere,” Quintana Hijano said.

Beginning anew at Anschutz

Quintana Hijano ended up in the Phoenix area. Although unable to practice as a doctor or dentist, he was able to help patients, working as a dental assistant and in a dialysis clinic. But he still wanted to be a surgeon and decided to restart his education. That would mean going through dental and medical school all over again. That also meant more high-stakes tests competing against other experienced professionals for admission.

But Quintana Hijano kept it in perspective. “I always look way ahead into the future. It doesn’t happen in one day, it takes forever.”

The only program for international students Quintana Hijano applied to was at the CU School of Dental Medicine. He says finding the program was a lucky break. While other dental schools have similar programs, by the time Quintana Hijano was ready to apply in 2013, CU Anschutz was the only school still taking applications. The wait since 2011 had been long enough, so he sent in his application.

“[I] was shocked and very flattered,” he said about getting admitted. “I thought there were people more prepared than me.”

“It was something random,” Quintana Hijano said. “But when I got here, I realized it was God’s will. This is a really, really good school.”

Going back to school didn’t seem to be a problem for Ivan, said Professor Elizabeth Towne, DDS. She directs the Advanced Standing International Student Program and worked closely with Quintana Hijano.

“Though he was an oral surgeon with an admirable career, he became a student again and eagerly embraced the basic level tasks of working on plastic teeth, and treating all the minor maladies we encounter in general dentistry,” Towne said. “He is supremely humble. He has been open to critique and criticism, and eagerly sought it out.”

Quintana Hijano said his classes have been a great way to learn the American system. Faculty members have been approachable and ready to offer professional and personal guidance. He also likes that American dentists are able to see patients from the start, develop a treatment plan and relationship, and see their progress.

That’s not a surprise.

“He has a big heart, and feels great empathy for all his patients,” Towne said. “He is a very kind, gracious and compassionate person.”

Colorado provided one shock, though. A life in hot climates and then Phoenix didn’t prepare him for Colorado winters. The day he came to Aurora to interview and visit was cold and snowy, which was the only downside, at least at the time.

But now, as Ivan awaits “match day” on Jan. 30 to find out where he’ll go for a residency program, he relaxes by skiing. He’s getting better, and he said he has even survived a few runs down the black diamond trails he went down “by mistake.”

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