No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. —English poet John Donne
I stepped off the plane in Kingston, Jamaica on Thursday evening and the sultry, warm air enveloped me like a thick blanket. This tropical island has great music, savory food, friendly people, world-class resorts, a raging drug problem… and hemophilia. I was here this past weekend to speak at the first-ever conference for the English-speaking countries of the Caribbean. The Jamaica Haemophilia Committee hosted this landmark World Federation of Hemophilia conference.
I’ve been to Jamaica twice before to help the patients organize, and numerous times over the past 20 years to a few other English-speaking countries here, including Barbados, Bahamas, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. All were represented here, at long last.
The emerging theme of the conference became isolation, and how
to break it. The poetry of John Donne expresses this so beautifully: so many people with hemophilia feel isolated, as if they are on an island, cut off from the world. Indeed, these people really are on islands! Our challenge is to unite patients and families with one another in their own countries, and then link and connect country with other countries, to learn from one another and to support each other. To make a hemophilia continent, and to reduce isolation.
Topics of the two day conference included: clinical management of hemophilia, outreach to community members, genetics, hemophilia in the Caribbean, WFH programs, comprehensive care, the role of nursing, physiotherapy, and patient involvement.
Who attended? Erica Worrell from Barbados, mother of a child with hemophilia, who just started a new society there in April and already held a successful walk to raise awareness; Brian and Ritchie Bardalez of Belize, young men who I have known since they were children, as I visited
Belize twice back in the early 2000s (they are now taking a leadership role);
Issa from Trinidad and Tobago, a patient and fiery orator, all my colleagues
and friends from Jamaica (Denton, Alex, Kirt, Berverly, Kerry-Ann, Milton,
Tamaicka, Sharon, Gricell, and the medical staff of UWI), Laurence Bakhsh, a brave young man from Guyana who we have helped for years with factor donations—first time meeting him!
The challenges are vast: Erica shared how there is no national registry of patients in Barbados, and how difficult it is to get factor. While the country buys some—a miracle in itself—you must get a prescription (wait time long), then go to the pharmacy (wait time even longer). You must pay for all ancillaries, right down to butterfly needles, which often are not even available! And tourniquets? Forget it. (We promised to ship her some ASAP.) Ritchie pointed out that Belize has closer ties with the Caribbean than with Central America, where he is located. There are only 16 known patients in Belize, and the terrain is the opposite of flat Barbados; it is mountainous with poor roads. A plane—“puddle jumper”—is the safest way to travel and distribute factor. 56% of the patients do home therapy, which spares them from expensive travel to clinics. There’s no hematologist—anywhere.
There’s also no hematologist in St. Lucia, reported Dr. Jackie Bird, a 58-year-old dynamo who seems to have single-handedly taken on care for all people with hemophilia on this volcanic island. Poverty is 28%, and there are only 6 known patients—all with factor IX deficiency! Factor is not available and never has been.
That made me sit up. Could we be the first to ship factor IX concentrate to St. Lucia? Jackie’s knees buckled, as she made a prayer sign with her hands, smiled and shouted, “Yes, thank you!” The room exploded in applause. This is the magic of these meetings: putting people together, those with and without, sharing honestly, and finding solutions. Yeah for us!
Laurence, a 33-year-old from Guyana, just founded a hemophilia society in 2015 and is struggling. After all, he has limited mobility, limited funding (he cannot work), and there are only 5 known people with hemophilia, including his brother and cousin. Guyana’s population of 755,000 means there are about 75 people with hemophilia. He has his work cut out for him. But with his natural charm and humility, he quickly became a favorite of all, and with his new network of colleagues, is bound to make improvements soon. “Strive to stay alive” is the organization’s tagline.
The Bahamas was represented by Florence Roker, mother of 21-year-old Chavez, who I met years ago. She has now stepped forward
to grab the reins of the floundering national organization. She broke into tears describing how Chavez has suffered: “You physically feel their pain,” she sobbed. Now, she said, regaining her composure, there are other children who suffer and who need our help. You have to find the silver lining behind the clouds. “This is a passion for me,” she concluded. “I’m motivated to get the organization to where it should be.”
An empowering and passionate speech was given by Issa, chair of the Society for Inherited and Severe Blood Disorders Trinidad and Tobago, an association for those with hemophilia, sickle cell and thalassemia. This is a brilliant strategy, to link up the three blood disorders to gain strength and have a stronger voice. And oh boy, does Issa have a strong voice! Motivating us and making us laugh, he stirred the audience emotionally with obvious leadership skills. T&T has been a WFH national member organization for 25 years, making it the oldest organization for hemophilia in the Caribbean. Issa declared that in the 1980s, West Indies cricket dominated the world. “Dominated!” he shouted. “Dominated! It happened when we united as one! We conquered the world!’ The audience laughed and applauded. Comparing this to diseases and disorders, T&T united as well. But unlike the West Indies cricket team, which had its glory days in the 1980s, “we are still a force to be reckoned with!” Issa declared.
But the most quoted person these two days was Jamaican hemophilia patient Tevon Brown, who stressed how isolated he felt growing up, as if he were the only person with hemophilia. He suffered terribly with pain, which felt like an “electric lead to my heart.” Strong role models and good teachers helped him. And he stressed now that we must unite and bring those who are isolated together, including nations. “We must have stick-to-it-iveness!”
But the greatest joy for me was seeing 22-year-old Kishroy Forde, who I’ve known since he was six, attend. Kishroy lives on Mayreau Island, remote in the Caribbean Sea, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, accessible only by boat, with no health care on the island of 300 people. It’s surreal to visit, which I’ve done twice. We provide Kishroy with factor when he needs it, and he knows how to self-infuse. We’ve also helped him attend a tech school, and with the help of his sponsor, purchase a new fishing boat for his father. They live in a rustic community; Mayreau has no towns and you can circumambulate the island in less than an hour. And yet, it is a tropical haven.
This was the first time Kishroy has met others with hemophilia and taken a plane. It was amazing to see him conversing with other guys his age who have hemophilia. He even got up to share his story!
I must thank the World Federation of Hemophilia for organizing this conference, funding it, and inviting me, which allowed me to invite so many of the people I’ve met over the past 20 years. Kudos to Luisa Durante, regional manager of the WFH for Latin America, who is as hard working as she is fun as she is beloved by the people she serves. She and her team (Salome and Felipe) provided a magical two days. The WFH does great work, and we are
proud to support them and volunteer when possible. It takes stick-to-it-iveness to make long term changes in hemophilia care, and this is how it happens. Unity, hard work, passion.
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