I watched my friend, Collis Barrow, as he lay on a shabby looking bed in the Emergency Room of the Victoria Hospital, on the morning of Monday 29th July this year, and my heart sank! It was very difficult to reconcile that shabby, tattered looking environment around me, numerous patients all jam-packed in that little Emergency Unit, with the eminence of my friend who lay there helplessly, eyes tightly shut, as he obviously tried to relax and rest a bit. Janice had very kindly invited me to enter that miserably tiny and clearly inadequate space, to see my friend. I could see that her heart was breaking. I didn’t know that I was seeing Collis for the last time. I had visited the hospital that morning with a childhood friend of mine, who had been specially referred to a brief clinic with my esteemed friend, Dr. Pompa, one of our really fine, cordial and thoroughly professional Cuban Doctors of Medicine deployed at Victoria Hospital. For some reason therefore, destiny had dispatched me to VH that morning, there to lay eyes on Collis for the last time, but also to yet again confront the horror movie Saint Lucians have been watching and experiencing live, every day, for several years now: a bruised, battered, tattered health sector, in nearly absolute ruin.
Patients were all over the place, looking marooned, sadly cocooned, in corners here, in abused wheelchairs there, on the floor here, and on ugly benches over there! The VH Emergency Unit felt like a lost, listlessly floating ship, abandoned by its Captain, and marooned, loaded with patients, friends of patients, and even more lonesome patients, all canned in like sardines, all so gloomy in spirit. What is the crux of the matter that affects that old, war torn institution? The island’s principal general hospital, Victoria Hospital, is overloaded, is overbooked, is substantially neglected! Perhaps the wealthy Saint Lucian is unaware, because he/she has no need to visit VH. Approximately three years after the Saint Jude Hospital and the Owen King EU Hospital should have been opened to the Saint Lucian public, they both remain closed. In the meantime, the Stadium facilities that have housed the Saint Jude Hospital operations for over a decade, are now heavily overburdened, and bursting at their seams. And of course, only a relatively minute percentage of the local population can afford the vastly superior, and therefore relatively exorbitant facilities of the private sector owned, Tapion Hospital, Saint Lucia’s premiere and only substantial private hospital. In those conditions of neglect and incompetence surrounding the still languishing Saint Jude and OKEU hospitals, Victoria Hospital has to accommodate the slack, and is therefore practically lying on its back.
My pain that morning at VH however, did not emanate entirely from the squalor I saw and smelled there, the place of my birth. My pain was not all about the helplessness of my ailing friend, Collis Barrow, lying on that ugly bed, in an extremely overcrowded, mind-numbing VH Emergency Unit. My pain, in fact, oozed from the nasty political wound inflicted upon an earlier dream and vision of mine, my yearnings from an earlier era, for Saint Lucia’s new national hospital to be built and to quickly have evolved into what I had described, in my own words, in my Memos at the Ministry of External Affairs & International Trade, as, the “Saint Lucia-OECS Medical Centre of Excellence”. My pain was the result of such deeper, more fundamental, more historical, heart-breaking, development planning musings.
You see, dear reader, I was the Chief Negotiator for the Saint Lucia – China Development Cooperation Programme, at its inception in 1998, when I also had the exquisite pleasure of having personally handed to the Taiwanese Ambassador, the GET-OUT-OF-SAINT-LUCIA letter, signed by Foreign Affairs Minister, the unique, iconic, cyclonic, gigantic, unforgettable “Brother” George Odlum. One of the four projects negotiated between Minister, “Brother George”; Permanent Secretary, Earl Huntley; Senior Foreign Service Officer, Peter Lansiquot (Saint Lucia Side); and the Chinese Ambassador and his aide (China Side), was the Saint Lucia New National Hospital. The other three projects were the Vieux Fort Free Trade Zone, a National Cultural Centre, and the National Stadium. These projects would have all been financed by the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as a gesture of development cooperation and political goodwill, in return for Saint Lucia’s decision to “kick out” Taiwan, and establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, after the historically unprecedented 1997 general elections’ 16-1 victory of the SLP over the UWP.
Here, in concise form, are the broad elements of my vision, as articulated to Minister George Odlum and PS Earl Huntley: (1) The Chinese would build the promised Saint Lucia new national hospital, with about three times the patient holding capacity of Victoria Hospital. (2) During hospital construction, the Ministry of External Affairs, under my personal technical propulsion and fire, and under Mr Huntley’s overall administrative supervision, would lead relevant forward planning talks with the Ministry of Health and other relevant public sector agencies, and prepare a proposal for an approach to the Cuban government, with elements of development cooperation with Martinique/Government of France. (3) The proposal would broadly entail, among other matters, a deployment of at least one hundred highly experienced Cuban Doctors of Medicine, specialists in several fields, to complement the local medical staff at the New National Hospital. The proposal would also request Cuban cooperation in the area of medical equipment. (4) This significant infusion of about 100 Doctors of Medicine would also allow the deployment of Doctors to other areas of Saint Lucia in accordance with needs and demands throughout the island. (5) Structured cooperation with the Government of France, on a development cooperation basis, for the deployment of French Doctors out of Martinique, to complement our local and Cuban medical staff, on a needs basis. In that way, Saint Lucia’s New National Hospital would soon be attending to numerous specialized health needs and Saint Lucia would soon be known, throughout the OECS, as a good destination for specialized medical care. This would also result in a serious financial injection for the health tourism sub-sector of the Saint Lucia national economy.
These were the essential skeletal elements of what I referred to then, in 1998, in my capacity as an Economist/Economic Planner/International Relations technocrat, and in the post of Senior Foreign Service Officer in the Foreign Ministry, as the Saint Lucia – OECS Medical Centre of Excellence. Saint Lucia would undoubtedly have attained by now, August 2019, the enviable status of being the most advanced and prestigious medical tourism destination of the OECS area, while guaranteeing First World health care for all Saint Lucian citizens and residents of Saint Lucia. That dream is still attainable when Saint Lucians have rescued the OKEU and have operationalized it in the manner that the taxpayers of the European Union had envisaged, when they invested millions of Euros in that precious gift to the deserving people of Saint Lucia.
The above was the dream, the First-World style vision, the memories and musings of which had catalyzed the profound sadness, the pain, and the deep sense of shame, that assailed me, as I briefly looked down upon the dying Collis Barrow, my unforgettable “A” Level College buddy. It is my deep conviction that hundreds of Saint Lucians have died, who could have been alive today, if that vision had been accomplished. One thing is certain: Collis Barrow would have been the recipient of immediate and highly skilled medical attention, in a First World style medical environment, upon his arrival at hospital. He would also have been receiving his care in a larger, quieter, cleaner, healthier, more private and more dignified emergency medical unit, observed by several Doctors and nursing professionals. That dream, that vision, as yet unaccomplished, is one of the principal reasons that my Saint Lucian people still have to face the near derelict Victoria Hospital, place of my birth. And Janice did confirm that the medical personnel could not find a bed for Collis. My friend had spent nearly 72 hours in that ugly, shabby, overcrowded space, simply because there were no beds available for him in the general wards area, where he would have been able to relax better, in a less hectic, better ventilated, less teeming environment, the sort of environment that Saint Lucians deserve, after 40 years of our political independence as a young nation State in the Caribbean.
The dream and the vision live on.