It’s an honour to be your featured speaker this evening.
I will provide a narrative of my professional development, with historical references to this evening’s theme: our country’s success rests not on size, but on our nation’s ability to rise to the occasion.
I was born in 1974 as Andy Smith. My mother dropped out of High School at a young age after giving birth, and my biological father was noticeably absent, as I grew up in Ottley’s village with my grandmother and three uncles. My family struggled with literacy, but my mother has always been an avid reader. And although she does not always pronounce the words right, she knows exactly what they mean.
Back then life was simple. My grandmother worked at the Lodge Estate. We lived in rental wooden houses. Breakfast consisted mostly of bush tea, and bread and butter. Most times the food was not enough. On Sundays when my grandmother caught her hand, we ate saltfish and bread with milk tea, Milo or Ovaltine. Yummy. There was no running water, electricity or flush toilet. We slept on lodging and had to hang them out daily, especially if they were “renk.” Without television, I had multiple occasions to hear my grandmother tell nighttime stories ranging from Suckunia, to the tales of the sunken ferry, Christena. By the time I was six, I was running around Ottley’s bare-footed and the villagers called me, endearingly, Dr. Smith. Hmm.
My mother worked in the apparel industry then she later left to work on sailboats like Polynesia Windjammer. I missed her, particularly when life got hard, and when my grandmother got drunk. If I did something wrong, or left the yard without doing my chores, she would curse and insult me, and my mother. I was small and skinny, and my big ears did not help. She used to call me rat bat ear.
But, I was always happy to see my mother return from the boat. She brought back boxes of food and clothes. I could have always counted on her, to get me things that I wanted for school, such as exercise books and pencils.
In 1983, I was nine years old attending the Cayon Primary School when St. Kitts-Nevis became independent. I heard on the radio and from my friends that the celebration was spectacular with music, fireworks, and fanfare. Princess Margaret had visited the island, and there were massive Man-of-War ships in the harbour. Unfortunately, my grandmother could not afford to send me to Town, so I did not see our wonderful nation rise from the shackles of imperialism.
Nonetheless, this was the birth of the smallest nation of the Western Hemisphere. We got a new flag, a new National Anthem and a new identity. We rose to the occasion, and we will rise.
That same year, Maurice Bishop of Grenada was overthrown and assassinated. Despite our size, troops from St. Kitts, the OECS and the U.S. went in to quell civil unrest. Once again we rose to the occasion and we will rise.
Cayon Primary School was difficult for me, and my head was not in the game. Conditions were just not conducive for learning. I had to walk a mile each way daily, barefooted, on the sun-scorched road. I was bullied by my enemies and friends alike, and I did not excel in any sports. No one seemed to care. School was dull and boring, so many times I resorted to bird hunting and exploring the mountains instead. On Sports Day, they still forced me to run. My house never won. That said, the highlight of my primary school days was the introduction of the School Meals Program—free food! This made school much more bearable.
By the end of primary school days, my grades had improved, and on graduation day, I was very optimistic, until I learned that the student who was voted most likely to succeed was not me! I was devastated.
My grandmother eventually succumbed to knee arthritis and became sedentary. Thankfully, doctors made house visits back then, and I used to watch Dr. Jacobs attend to her bedside, prescribe medications and aspirate fluid from her swollen knee. Sometimes that alleviated her pain. Other times she resorted to alternative medicine, like placing warm leaves on her knee or wearing copper bracelets, in the hope of getting some relief. Her symptoms progressed. I was helpless, but I was motivated to learn medicine.
When I got to Cayon High School, by the grace of God, I landed in 1A2. But the first year was very similar to Primary School: poor attendance, poor discipline and mediocre grades. During my second year, I encountered teachers like Mrs. Patrice Mills, who must have noticed my potential. She sat down with me, and encouraged me to study the material, do my homework, and work harder.
By now, my mother had quit her job on the boat and moved to St. Maarten. She sent us food and supplies when she could. One of my uncles was now working, and he took an interest in my studies. He paid for my lunch and books. If I failed to perform when marksheet came out, I got two sets of flogging (one at school and one at home–from my uncle). Yet, he offered me prizes, if I could improve my grades. As you can imagine, I did not want any licks, but I wanted whatever prizes he had to offer, so I rose to the challenges. As I advanced through high school, I kept setting personal goals and I spent several hours reading at night, to the lamplight. I often sought the help of students ahead of me, such as Cromwell Williams who went on to become a civil engineer, and Chris Archibald who became a priest. As for me, I became a hermit, a recluse or even worse, a nerd. But I was determined that if education was the key to success—I wanted that key. Moreover, I had to break the cycle of abuse, hunger and poverty.
Despite my academic improvements, I began to enjoy long distance running in High School, and I regularly won medals at the annual steeplechase.
In 1989, I was in third form, and admittedly, my family’s quality of life was turning around. We had electricity and running water, decent clothes and beds. I was able to focus better, and more clearly. After school, I used to cut sugar cane to bring in extra money. Then smash! Our whole life was shattered by hurricane Hugo in September. The gushing winds of this category IV hurricane demolished thousands of houses and left countless people homeless. There was no clean running water or electricity for weeks. However, the people of this great nation came together and rebuilt this island. We rose to the occasion, and we will rise.
Over the next couple of years, through stiff competition and significant sacrifices, I advanced to the top of the class to graduate with distinctions in many subjects, except English.
The summer of 1991, I sought employment at the major research institution on the island, the St. Kitts Biomedical Research Foundation (SKBRF). This was truly an eye-opener for me. I was able to see real science at work for the first time. I worked alongside Gene Redmond and other prominent researchers including a Nobel Laureate. I was introduced to computers and floppy discs, and soon realized that typing was not just for girls. I quickly recruited a friend to teach me typing. Remember, at this time neither the Internet nor Facebook were invented.
I was fascinated with working at St. Kitts Biomedical, especially working with monkeys and medications. While at the St. Kitts Biomedical, I also met my future wife, Kathlyn, who is here with us this evening. She enriches my life. She is the lemongrass in my bush tea!
After a brief stint at the St. Kitts Biomedical, I started studies at Sixth Form. Overly ambitious, I took on an excessive workload in Math and Science, and my grades suffered. The University of the West Indies issued a scholastic test to determine who might qualify for scholarships. I took it and failed miserably. My prime competitor, Gavin Hamilton, however, passed with high grades and went on to college after becoming the State Scholar. As second-runner up, I was demoralized but not discouraged. I returned to St. Kitts Biomedical, the proud owner of a SKANTEL scholarship for EC$6000.00, hoping that one day I’d be able to go to college.
St. Kitts Biomedical was indeed a bastion of knowledge, science, and high-end technology—all the things that I believed in. I studied animal behavior, read protocols and managed sick animals. I even got excited about giving animals antibiotics late at night. This is where I learned about the germ theory, sterility and surgery.
My interactions with visiting American students and scientists inspired me to do more, and learn more. I advanced quickly, and took on more and more responsibility. Impressed with my work ethic, conscientiousness, and passion to learn, Gene Redmond inquired about my plans for college— but I had none. One of his philanthropists from Texas had visited the island, and later sent me an SAT study guide. So, I studied and took the SAT’s. Despite my lack of general knowledge, and despite limited exposure to worldly things such as Brussels Sprouts, I scored above average. And Gene took a chance and offered me a work-study scholarship for college. I applied to the only U.S. college that was accepting applications at that time of the year—Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU)—and was accepted.
SCSU gave me a smooth introduction to American student life and culture. But I also have to give credit to another Kittitian, and former St. Kitts Biomedical employee, Loydon Henry Phillip from Tabernacle, who was studying at SCSU at that time. He was popular on campus, so that helped me to adjust as well.
I excelled academically while at SCSU, and I made it to the Dean’s list for outstanding achievement. I picked up Tae Kwon Do as a hobby, and joined the International Students Club. By that time, Gene had assumed significant responsibility for my education and wellbeing, so he adopted me. He has taught me many things about humility, respect, discipline, and proper behaviour—for which I am thankful. After one year, I transferred to Yale College.
Yale consisted of exceptional American and international students, many of whom were gifted and groomed from a young age for college. Many grew up playing music. Several went to boarding schools and graduated at the top of their classes, while being the captain of their debate, baseball or lacrosse teams. In other words, the competition was daunting. But, by this time, I had my eyes set on medical school, and in order to get there, I had to outperform, outshine and outmaneuver my fellow students. But I still had a weakness, English.
I studied day and night. I did intercollegiate martial arts competitions. And I did research in pharmacology. To cover the English and writing weakness, I swallowed my pride and enlisted the help of Gene and my roommate, Dr. Matthew Lawrence, to review and critique my writings. I also attended tutorials to get extra lessons. Hunger was no longer a problem. All I had to do was to concentrate, stay focused and brave the harsh winters of Connecticut, as I rode my bicycle back and forth to school.
My hard work paid off and I started Yale Medical School in 1998. Of about 5,000 applicants, Yale only accepted 125 students. These students were the cream of the crop—highly accomplished and intelligent. The curriculum was rigorous. The Latin nomenclature for body parts and diseases was overwhelming, but my professors were incredible, especially my anatomy professor, Dr. Stewart, who was always patient and attentive. Despite the arduousness of medical education and the long hours involved, I remained confident that I would succeed.
The next two years of medical school we were taught in the hospital, in various disciplines such as cardiology, general surgery and internal medicine etc. That is when I was drawn to neurosurgery. Although there was a lot of material to assimilate, it’s a hands-on specialty that allows quick interventions to help patients and save lives. Truth be told, few doctors understand the problems of the nervous system very well, and I wanted that specialized knowledge.
After graduating medical school, the next big challenge of my career involved the seven-year-long neurosurgery residency. During the first 2 years of residency, I routinely worked in excess of 120 hours per week, and most of the times, I felt like a zombie. My job was to manage neurological problems with help in the daytime, but alone in the hospital at night. They threw me into an ocean of chaos, and my choice was to sink or swim. I had to take care of adults and children with brain tumours, seizures, strokes, birth defects and infections, and still attend to patients in the emergency room. Initially, I was confused and it felt like the world was spinning out of control. I could not keep up. Despite being tired, sleepy and hungry, I needed to read more and learn more, fast. After all, people’s lives were at stake! And to make bad matters worse, Yale had recently fired a neurosurgery resident for underperformance and incompetence. I truly feared for my career. But, I persevered.
By my third year of residency, I became more confident, and my responsibilities grew. I also gained more technical skills in the operating room.
While in residency, Kathlyn and I got married, and we exhausted what little savings we had, to buy a condominium. Aside from her unwavering love and support, I am happy to have wed someone with whom I can enjoy saltfish and dumpling, and someone who appreciates Ellie Matt and the GI’ s-Brass.
In 2005, I crossed paths with a young aspiring business student from my home village, Mr. Alexis Nisbett, along with his brilliant wife, Akilah, both of whom were studying in Connecticut at that time. We regularly discussed St. Kitts politics, history and current affairs. I am proud to have them as friends, and as upstanding citizens of our community. My written records show that we were discussing the feasibility of an MRI in St. Kitts for at least ten years, before one was actually installed on the island! Unbelievable.
That same year, we witnessed the collapse of king sugar. We were heartbroken. We could not imagine Sugar-City without the sugar. One may argue that aside from the falling prices of sugar, our small size could not compete with bigger countries like Cuba and Brazil. Despite the tragedy, however, and despite our size, we diversified our economy. We rose to the occasion, and we will rise.
Towards the end of my residency, something unusual happened. The student became the teacher and surgeon, when I operated on my anatomy professor, Dr. Stewart, for a spinal cord tumour. He must have taught me well, because he had a good recovery. When I graduated, I was recruited to work at Yale University, but pleasantly declined.
I moved to a private practice neurosurgery group in Texas instead. I am a partner at a premier specialty hospital and I have learned much about medical business development and management. And now I am proud to have joined with the Rt. Hon. Prime Minister, Dr. Harris, Ministers Hamilton and Phipps, and the Team Unity to provide MRI imaging on the island. They have been open-minded and forward thinking. They understood that we’d be better off by getting the critical health services we need, right here. Moreover, they understood, in light of the recent hurricanes, that we have a humanitarian responsibility, to provide assistance to the surrounding islands. And, guess what? Despite our size, they rose to the occasion, and we will rise.
Now, some of you may say, Dr. Redmond that’s a decent speech, but at the end of the day you’ll go back to Texas and things will continue as usual. But I beg to differ. Because each of us has a part to play here, and when we became independent we decided to actively govern, protect and serve our country. The people of Texas are very appreciative of the service that I provide, and my practice there allows me to use my profession, knowledge, and expertise as leverage to help our nation. My heart and family are in St. Kitts. And hundreds of patients have already benefited from the work of myself and my colleagues thus far. I intend to continue serving my country.
With regards to healthcare, let’s work together to make St. Kitts-Nevis the provider of the best medical services in the region. Brothers and sisters, the time has come for us to compete not based on size, but based on our intellect, ingenuity, and creativity, so let’s pool our resources and move forward, because our time is now.
And may you all have a Happy and prosperous New Year (2018)