Thank you, Minister Dalley
To say that the populace of this country had lost confidence in the Ministry of Health would be a gross understatement. The inadequate handling of the chikungunya epidemic last year and the delayed response to the fire at the Riverton City dump this year exposed weaknesses in the ministry, especially in the areas of communication.
And the manner in which the ministry responded to the deaths of premature babies, resulting from bacterial outbreaks this year at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) and the Cornwall Regional Hospital (CRH), was clumsy and lacked sensitivity.
The former minister of health, Dr Fenton Ferguson, was subsequently removed from his post and transferred to head the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, and replaced by Horace Dalley.
As he was appointed, the prime minister ordered Dalley to review the reporting structure between the regional health authorities and the health ministry. The minister hit the ground running, asking the boards of the UHWI, the CRH and the Western Regional Health Authority to resign, stating that they were asked to do so “as a matter of accountability”, adding that the UHWI board had not been reviewed for a long time.
He also extended an invitation to Dr Alfred Dawes, immediate past president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association (JMDA), to meet with him, following Dawes’ scathing review of the country’s health sector, which cited political interference and corruption as barriers to the effective delivery of health care.
Dalley actually commended Dawes for his frankness and has publicly expressed a desire to see him at the helm of a health facility. Recently, at a televised health forum, the minister was honest enough to state that it was politics why the previous administration scrapped user fees and that the present government has retained that regime for the same reason.
Regarding the threat of the Zika virus, the minister has been proactive, communicating the importance of preparation, and announcing that the ministry would be hiring and training 1,000 young people as vector-control workers who will go into communities and identify mosquito-breeding sites and destroy them. Dalley also called for an aggressive review of gaps that could hinder Jamaica from meeting its HIV-AIDS targets.
What has struck me the most about Minister Dalley, however, is his emotional intelligence. Soon after his appointment, one of his first orders of business was to meet with the mothers of the premature infants who died following bacterial outbreaks at the CRH and UHWI, and personally express his condolences, something that his predecessor did not see fit to do.
When it was revealed that the bodies of between 80 and 90 babies were being stored at a Kingston funeral home, some from as far back as January of this year, and that plans were being made to have a mass burial of the bodies at May Pen Cemetery, Dalley intervened, instructing the relevant authorities to halt the planned burials. He requested detailed investigations and clarifications of the circumstances before any further burials took place, and expressed his condolences to the families.
While I was a resident in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University Hospital of the West Indies, I started a support group for women (and their partners) experiencing pregnancy loss. Unfortunately, the group had been on hiatus for a number of years, but has recently been revived. I tried to contact the minister during the week prior the first meeting, held on the first Saturday of this month, but was unable to make contact with him until after 9 o’clock on Friday night, at which time I invited him. Despite the late notice, he accepted my invitation, even though he was to visit his constituency that day.
Mr Dalley not only showed up, but fully engaged the women and man who were present, expressing his condolences and empathising with them, admitting that meeting with the mothers of the babies who died during the bacterial outbreaks this year was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of his life. Mr Dalley listened to the women and their stories, and agreed to tackle a common problem experienced by persons experiencing pregnancy loss in the public health system, which is insensitivity of medical staff. One lady related a story of a grieving woman who was asked, rather crudely, “Yu tink yu a di only one weh ever lose a baby?”
During this political silly season, with so much inter- and intra-party vitriol, nastiness, finger-pointing and ranting, it is refreshing to see a politician who appreciates the value of expressing compassion and empathy.
The support group meeting was not in his constituency, was not a media event, drew little publicity, and was a small gathering, but Minister Dalley understood the importance of reaching out to affected persons and gathering insight into the psychological aspect of a situation that can be a harrowing and life-changing event for a woman. All of us who attended are grateful.
Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.