During her two decades as a combat medic, Francelina Rodriguez amputated arms and legs, stuffed guts back into gaping bullet holes and rebuilt jaws blown off by shrapnel.
She saved 378 lives on the operating table and lost two — all without a medical degree or even a high school diploma.
Rodriguez, 53, learned, practiced and perfected her life-saving skills as a member the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.
Now that Colombia and the FARC are implementing a six-month-old peace deal, Rodriguez and medics like her are scrambling to prove that they truly are doctors — even if they don’t have degrees.
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Cuba is offering the FARC and the government of Colombia 1,000 scholarships for ex-combatants to study medicine. And most of the guerrillas’ DIY doctors are vying for the slots. But first they have to pass their bachillerato, or high school equivalency exam.
Rodriguez joined the group when she was just 13, after a right-wing paramilitary gang killed her parents and all of her siblings. Within a few years, she was working on the guerrilla front lines as a defacto paramedic and nurse, plugging shrapnel wounds and treating troops for malaria. But eventually — thanks to her voracious reading habit and years of practice — she became a go-to surgeon for the Marxist guerrillas, keeping her own records of the lives she saved.
Colombia’s half-century civil conflict has left more than 220,000 dead and perhaps more than a million injured, making it a ruthless training ground for combat medics.
But even though Rodriguez can devour dense medical texts and triage seven patients at a time, she never studied beyond the fifth grade. And on a recent weekday, she was huddled over a notebook struggling with the new bane of her existence: fractions.
“These math exercises are very hard for me,” she said. “I’m not worried about anything else, because I know it will be just a matter of correcting some of my [medical] techniques or learning terminology that we never used in the guerrillas.”
While the medical term for intestines spilling out of the body (a common war wound) is evisceration, she explained, the FARC medics call it being tripiado or, roughly, gutted.
Beginning in December, and in the wake of the peace deal, some 7,000 guerrillas have moved to 26 concentration zones to begin the process of reintegrating into society.
At this camp, commonly known as Icononzo for its proximity to a village of the same name, a handful of combat medics have been meeting almost daily in a makeshift library to prepare for the high-stakes equivalency test.
The guerrilla doctors said they feel like they were being given is a chance to start over and to prove that the medical work they did in the jungle for all those years has merit.
At just 28, Juan Carlos Saenz has effectively been a doctor for 11 years. One of his first medical interventions was also one of his hardest: A close friend stepped on a misplaced guerrilla landmine. Saenz had to perform a field amputation of one of his legs.
“One of the hardest things to do is to save the life of a friend,” he said. “I saved him, but it was terrible.”
Compared to that, everything — including the prospect of five years of medical school in Cuba — seems easy.
“I already know the theory and I’ve already been practicing, so I don’t think it will be that hard,” he said. “It will be a challenge, but it will also be a lot better than shooting at each other.”
The FARC medics are luckier than many in the guerrilla group. Despite being degree-less, the medical workers have skills that are prized in the civilian world. By contrast, many other ex-combatants will have to face a strange and perhaps hostile society with nothing but a middle-school education and the ability to take orders and handle weapons.
Working in a makeshift library fashioned out of sticks and plastic tarps, Sebastian Contreras, a Chilean volunteer at the FARC camp, was putting the doctors through their mathematical paces. But he said he really shouldn’t be there at all — rather, it should be the government investing in the guerrillas’ schooling.
“One of the key elements for a successful reintegration is education; they need a minimum level of education to have access to society,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re destined to be homeless, criminals or are going to be working in very basic jobs.”
The government says it will eventually provide vocational education at the FARC camps and offer help once the ex-combatants begin to reintegrate.
While the doctors are eager to learn formal medicine, they might also have something to teach their real-world colleagues. In the field, Rodriguez began experimenting with covering up open gut wounds with pieces of medical plastic from recycled IV bags, rather than gauze that stuck to the flesh.
“A [real] doctor asked me where I had studied that technique, and I told him I’d developed it in the FARC,” she said laughing. “Nobody ever taught me anything. I had to read about it in books and then apply it in the field.”
Rodriguez says her dream is to study hard in Cuba so she can do what she’s always done: be a doctor.
“Eventually I want to come back to Colombia and help poor people who really need medical attention,” she said.
But first she has to nail math.
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss