Building Bridges

by Claudette Heyliger-Thomas M.D.

Photo of Canadian team members with nurses

Some members of the Canadian team with the local nurses at Fort Wellington hospital

Guyana, South America, is a former British territory, which gained its independence in 1966. It is bordered in the east by Suriname, west by Venezuela, south by Brazil and north by the Atlantic Ocean. This land of extraordinary people, along with my parents, brothers, other family members and Christ’s Anglican church, nurtured me for the first eighteen years of my life. I left to further my education at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, ultimately pursuing a career in medicine with a specialty in Pediatrics.

Guyana has a population of approximately 780,000, twenty-eight percent residing in the capital city of Georgetown and the remaining living in villages along the coastal belt and a few settlements scattered deep in the country’s more mountainous hinterland. Medical care is provided primarily at the level of health clinics, with one public level V hospital, Georgetown Public Hospital, which serves as the tertiary facility for the entire country. There is a high patient to physician ratio, the majority of whom are non-nationals. So Guyana relies extensively on visiting medical groups who provide both primary and subspecialty care. The majority of complicated cases are referred to facilities in Trinidad, Barbados, the United States or Britain.

My desire join the effort to provide medical services finally became possible with the figurative emptying of our nest (Kelwyn and myself) of children - Kudjo, Ayesha, Ketema and Jamila. I completed my first mission in March 2008, partnering with Dr. Joan Liverpool, Deskan Institute and Training (www.deskan.net), who had travelled to Guyana on an ongoing basis over the previous five years. We saw approximately six-hundred patients over a four-day period, with the majority of diagnoses centering on diabetes, hypertension, and skin infections. But it was disheartening to see missed opportunities for subspecialty care and children who could have benefited from aggressive physical and occupational therapy. We returned in June 2009 with a larger group that included a cardiologist (NY), neurologist (Georgia), a family practitioner (Georgia), a neonatologist (Pennsylvania), social workers (New Jersey and Germany), an otolaryngologist and audiologist (Canada), an IT team, nurses, and other support personnel from the United States, Canada and Guyana. Prior to the actual mission, we provided a two day continuing medical education conference, coordinated by Morehouse School of Medicine, to the local physicians. It focused on hypertension, stroke, prostate cancer, suicide, and hearing loss. We also distributed toys and teddy bears to the maternity and children’s wards of Georgetown Public Hospital.

The mission was centered in two areas outside of the capital of Georgetown, Parika in the west and Fort Wellington in the east. We provided services in various capacities including diabetic, hypertensive, and audiology screening, counseling on domestic violence and suicide, to approximately nine-hundred patients in a four day period. The adults and children waited patiently for many hours to be seen. We collaborated with many institutions and organizations including: Medshare; Guyana Christian Charities of Toronto, Canada; Boys and Girls Club; All God’s Little Children (Georgia), who ensured our medical supplies and equipment arrived safely and in a timely manner; Nica-Aid, headed by Dr. James Town of Canada, who donated a trailer and truck that we eventually hope to convert to a mobile unit from which we will be able to give immunizations, do hearing, vision and dental screenings and use as a school based clinic on a year round basis. Food for the Poor provided food, clothing, shoes and other personal items for distribution.

The generosity and spirit of many of the people involved touched our hearts during the mission. Pastor Motie Singh and his wife Nalini, generously allowed us to use their church, Faith Community Church, as one our sites; Dr Donald Wallerson, a cardiologist, continued to evaluate patients right up to our departure for the airport; the staff and students of St. Vincent De Paul Catholic School of Strathroy, Canada, donated seeds so the people of Guyana can feed themselves. There was a four-year-old girl, who despite her cerebral palsy, had quite a sense of humor. Her parents are hoping she will be able to get more assistance at the Shriners Hospital in Florida. One young man, Kwesi Nelson, pleaded for assistance with a tumor in his jaw, diagnosed two years ago, which will eventually impinge on his airway. There was no specialist available to take care of this problem and he did not have the finances to travel to Trinidad for its removal. He appealed to Dr. Ralph Ruby (otolaryngologist) of Canada, who on his return home immediately began to organize a team to do this procedure. There is presently an effort to raise donations through www.guymission.org toward this end.

1 Corinthians 2:10-12. God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things. …We have received not the Spirit of the world but the Spirit which is of God that we know the things that are freely given to us of God.

The people that I have met along this spiritual journey that God has chosen for me continually show me that God’s love is limitless and merciful. The mission is a constant reminder that we often take God’s gifts for granted. We need to continue to share His gifts with those in the greatest need. There is a poem by Benjamin E. Mays that I hold dear:

I’ve only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it,
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give an account if I abuse it,
Just a tiny little minute,
But eternity is in it.

Easter reminds us that Jesus death and resurrection has given each of us His precious minutes, His Spirit, and His love to freely share with our family members, our neighbors and especially with those who have the least, and are the least among us.

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