The crowd under the big white tent on Friday, April 7th, 2017, was made up of doctors, families, philanthropists, well-wishers, and government officials. It was sunny and hot in the courtyard of Milton Cato Memorial Hospital, but instead of providing shady relief, the tent seemed to form a force field against every possible breeze, creating an oven of humidity only nominally eased by the flapping of many programs in many hands.
Everyone was there to dedicate the new World Pediatric Project Operating Theater at Milton Cato, an endeavor many years in the making. Without a full grasp of the sheer amount of people and plans involved, it’s difficult to get a sense of how special the day is. Now, WPP surgeons and physicians will be able to schedule procedures without disrupting the flow of everyday business at Milton Cato. And with medical teams coming to St. Vincent and the Grenadines at least once a month, the need for a smooth process and separate space has become something of an urgent matter.
Broken up by intervals of skillfully played steel drums, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Health, the Governor-General, the chairwoman of the Mustique Charitable Trust, the director of Miracle Flights, and WPP’s own CEO, Susan Rickman, stood up to address the audience, who nodded and clapped at the appropriate times. But it was hot, and while the assembly was certainly appreciative, it was also restless.
And then, the children appeared. They made their way down the aisle and took their places at the microphone, one after the other. Bless, a 14-year-old with a strong, confident voice that belied her thin frame, remarked upon her five open heart surgeries, and the strength she now feels coursing through her. “I am better, stronger, and beautiful because there are people who love me,” she said with such certainty. The parents of Princess, a strikingly gorgeous one-year-old who’d had most of her arm removed after a bout of cancer as an infant, gave a speech laced with emotion. Kamara, now in her 20s and living a full life after losing a leg to cancer, spoke shyly about her determination to do everything everyone else can do, and more. And tall, teenage Shalisa, also known as Child Number One, stood quietly as her mother recounted the story of Shalisa’s experience as the very first WPP patient in St. Vincent.
These families’ voices seemed to bring a breeze through that hot tent, and everyone sat up as straight as if they’d just been offered an ice-cold glass of water. While the congratulatory assembly of appropriate dignitaries was both proper and enjoyable to witness, this was the real reason we’d come together that day. We do this for real, live children and their real, live families. This is a way to help an entire generation of future adults.
The small but mighty force behind the scenes
St. Vincent’s pediatrician, Dr. B. Datta, is more than just that title. She is the island’s strongest advocate for its children, the anchor that WPP relies on, and a crucial link between the American specialists and the Vincentian patients. She wields both a heart and a will so large, it’s hard to understand how they fit into such a tiny person (Dr. Datta’s small stature often makes her difficult to spot among the many children in her ward). Without her in place in this important Caribbean hub country, the whole WPP system wouldn’t have evolved to become so efficient and so effective.
Dr. Datta with a visiting medical team
At age 25, Dr. Datta arrived at St. Vincent on a trip to see more of the world with her husband. She’d become a doctor in her native India, with a notable ambition for learning, helping, and defying expectations. The young couple knew they wanted to travel but they weren’t sure where they’d end up—Guyana was their first stop, St. Vincent their second. “And there was no third stop,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Many of Dr. Datta’s remarks are matter-of-fact, delivered with the trademark dry wit that makes her so popular with her patients. She didn’t stay because of the beautiful weather, or even because of her lifelong love of helping children. She simply stayed because she knew she was needed. “People would ask me what my plan was, and I have never had a plan,” she says with good humor. “You work and you work and time goes by, and around my 10th or 15th year, I knew I would stay. Life makes plans for you.”
35 years later, the doctor is the center of pediatric care in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. She’s seen the country change—nutrition declining with the introduction of American snack foods, and then rising again with more nutrition education, breastfeeding being stigmatized by formula manufacturers and then gradually again becoming the norm, HIV’s arrival and decline, sickle cell disease, cerebral palsy, pneumonia, asthma, epilepsy…she’s seen it all.
Getting children to Dr. Datta isn't always the easiest feat. A parent might bring a child with an orthopedic problem, a heart issue, or another kind of sickness or congenital defect to the clinic in their village. Sometimes, even the travel to this clinic is arduous, over rocky hills or down a narrow road with traffic to contend with. The nurse at that clinic will examine the child, and decide whether or not to connect them with the pediatrician at Milton Cato in Kingstown. Once referred, the child will attempt possibly even more arduous travel to Kingstown for further examination at the hospital. If the pediatrician believes this child would benefit from a specialist, that’s where World Pediatric Project steps in.
The needs of the community are so great, with such a lack of training and knowledge available to help them, that Dr. Datta finds herself always pushing for more. More equipment, more space, more support, more attention from the local government, more nutritional education, better food in schools. Being a champion for the children, she’s discovered, is an entirely separate job from being their doctor. Each morning, as she makes her rounds in the open, airy pediatric ward and checks on the tiny Infant Care Unit (renovated in partnership with WPP in 2013), she examines patients’ progress, makes the children smile, administers hugs and calming pats, and murmurs soothing but firm words to the sometimes distraught parents. These children are largely unaware that, once she has a minute to sit down, their beloved doctor goes to work for them in a different way, checking in with the WPP doctors back in the U.S., inquiring about the status of equipment she needs for the ward, or consulting with resident pediatric surgeon Dr. Jasmine Ellis—a rare St. Vincentian who trained to be a doctor elsewhere, then returned to her island to help.
Dr. Jasmine Ellis
Without deeply committed advocates on the ground, World Pediatric Project would reach only a fraction of the children they help every year. Dr. Datta’s determined lobbying for Milton Cato Memorial Hospital to offer up their space for WPP’s Eastern Caribbean hub has had an impact on the future health of an entire nation—even the region as a whole—and with this new operating theater, the organization’s reach and effectiveness can grow that much further.