Barbados… Holding

The bustling airport, the long lines, new hotels popping up… all speak to a brisk tourism that provides the tiny island nation of Barbados with a staggering 17.5% of its $4.8 billion GDP. But hemophilia remains a quiet part of this country of 281,000.

Laurie with the members of the Barbados Haemophilia Association

I last visited in 2014, when I had already made contact with Sofia, a young mother there in need of factor. I sent her some and in turn, with a bit of guidance, she was kind enough and motivated to start the Barbados Haemophilia Association, which continues this day. She has since left the island to raise her child in the United States, and Erica Worrell, another mother, took over as president.

It’s not easy. And like many businesses, nonprofits and lives in general, momentum was cut short by the pandemic. This was my first real country visit for hemophilia-related purposes, since the pandemic. I last saw Erica on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland in 2018, following the World Federation of Hemophilia Congress, as we were both window shopping. I looked forward to hearing how things were going; what were the factor needs; what were next steps?

After a lovely luncheon I hosted today for some of the families, I can see that hemophilia in Barbados seems in a holding pattern.

There is much potential. It’s a small island; only 33 patients known patients, with quite a few related. The government even buys some factor. They have a powerhouse of a nurse in Virginia, who knows everyone and knows hemophilia.

Unfortunately, the ERs do not. Despite the BHA’s best efforts, Jeffrey, a man with hemophilia B who I met the last visit, said, “I’m scared to go to the hospital.” Apparently the ER staff, as in many developing countries, do not place hemophilia as a priority (if they can’t see the bleed), and do not listen to the urgent requests of the patients or parents.

Erica Worrell, president of BHA

They also have problems with racial divides, believe it or not. There is a parish (like a county) called St. John’s, where descendants of the Scottish and Irish indentured servants or forced laborers who once landed here hundreds of years ago settled. They tent to keep to themselves. There are hemophilia patients there, but not much is known about them.

Access to factor is good, when it is available. What is provided by the government and by the WFH is typically not enough to meet needs. Though it certainly is much better since I visited in 2014! Erica and the BHA are well connected now to the WFH, which was one goal of forming the BHA.

Jeffrey was one of 11 children growing up in the 60s. One brother also has hemophilia. His nephew, Leemar, and I are good friends now on Facebook messenger, and he lets me know when he needs factor (FEIBA or NovoSeven). A great-nephew, Konnor, was also there, a rising star! He has big dreams to become a hematologist, and something tells me he is going to succeed.

Laurie with Leemar

At least things are completely better than when Jeffrey was young. He tells me mischievously that as one of 11 children, “They couldn’t keep on eye on me so much!” He is famous as a teen for cliff diving… without factor! He describes the pain he endured as a “monster. You could feel it creeping up on you, thump, thump, as the knee got bigger and bigger.” The pain was excruciating, but Jeffrey tried to be stoic. Life was measured second by second then.

Thankfully now, because of the combined efforts of the BHA, WFH, and the dynamic nurse Virginia, a new generation has a chance. Barbados seems a bit paused, but it is starting to rise again, like the rest of the post-pandemic world. Erica already has a new idea for a comic-book style publication about the Jeffrey’s story, Leemar’s story… everyone’s. It’s a great idea, so long as they leave our Jeffrey’s cliff-diving escapades!

We parted as good friends, and they dispersed with the bundle of factor and medical supplies I brought. I’ll be back next year, with more factor, supplies and hoping to see activities and a new comic book!

Stick-To-It-iveness! Improving Hemophilia Care in the Caribbean

Ray Greenidge and Erica Worrell of the Barbados (in red) with Laurie Kelley and Salome Mekhuzla (WFH)

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.

Luisa Durante, WFH

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.

Dr. Jackie Bird, St. Lucia

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.

    Bardalez brothers (Belize) with Valentino        (Suriname), Dr. Eric (Belize) and Laurence Bahkesh (Guyana)

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!

Patient Ray Greenidge, vp, and president Erica Worrell, Barbados Haemophilia Association and Charity

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.

Laurie Kelley with Laurence Bakhsh (Guyana)

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.”

Agent of change: Florence Roker of the Bahamas

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!”
he announced.

Kisroy Forde addressing the audience

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.

Laurie Kelley with Kishroy

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