Joyful, joyful, joyful was the noise made on 21st February, 2016, the eve of our 37th Independence anniversary, at the now-named Owen King EU Hospital. Yes, the singing by some was more noise than melody but it was undoubtedly soulful and joyful. The entertainment by Derede Williams and the VH chorale was uplifting, from the duet of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” by one of Owen King’s favourite singers to the joyful, hopeful, joint VH staff “Ain’t no mountain high enough”. There were excellent performances by the Royal Saint Lucia Police Band, Harmonites Steel Band, Eastern Folk Band, Dynamics and Skip Monday.
The organisers can be pleased with the ceremony; the speeches were on point. The EU ambassador, Mr. Mikael Barford, urged the government to be creative as it strives to arrive at a sustainable, equitable service. He pointed out that this was the largest single investment by the EU in the OECS (EC$ 167 million). He urged the government to open the hospital as soon as possible and make it the “centre of excellence” that it has the potential to be. He said that he looks forward to the opening and ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’ to keep him from getting to the opening.
Dr. Xysta Edmund outlined the steps that brought us to this milestone. The Minister of Health made the crucial point that this hospital is part of a continuum of care that must be designed and implemented in such a manner that all Saint Lucians have access to quality health services.
The Prime Minister was eloquent reminding us that we are naming this hospital the Owen King EU hospital thereby declaring our sovereignty and responsible partnership with the European Union. He also reminded us that we must implement the system of Universal Health Care to achieve the objectives of sustainable health services, serving all Saint Lucians. He pointed out that we need to harness our collective effort to transition the health sector and announced the appointment of a focal point, the “Director of Health Sector Transitioning”, to facilitate this. Listening to Hon. Dr. Kenny Anthony I realised no other government leader or Prime Minister who has so persevered in his efforts to improve the health services over the last 20 years. He is undoubtedly one of the main people to recognise as we reach this milestone.
The Executive Director of Victoria Hospital gave a thoughtful and eloquent thank you ending with “teamwork makes the dream work”. The questions I reflected on were: Where did this start? Why Owen King? And what next?
We can start this journey in 1887 with the commissioning of Victoria Hospital when were a British Colony and Queen Victoria was our monarch. To me, Victoria Hospital has been like the “Lady Madonna” in the classic 1968 Beatles song: “Lady Madonna, children at your feet Wonder how you manage to make ends meet. Who finds the money when you pay the rent?
Did you think that money was heaven-sent?
Lady Madonna, baby at your breast Wonder how you manage to feed the rest.”
Victoria Hospital has been there for us for almost 130 years. We may complain sometimes about how she has served us but we must recognise her for the good work that she has done and for her continuous presence, never refusing to do what she can to help us in some of our most desperate moments. Successive governments have recognised the need to upgrade the physical plant. Through the years, the nursing home building was added; the Duke of Edinburgh wing was added. The new laboratory, the Ezra Long Laboratory (named after one of our first Saint Lucian medical technologists – father of Dr. Desmond Long), was built in 1992. The Francoise Dolto wing for Obstetrics and Gynaecology was donated by the Government of France and complemented by a million dollars raised by Minister Romanus Lansiquot in an unprecedented unilateral action to engage the public to raise the money. More recently, the rebuilding of “L block” was done by the government after fire damage.
Minister of Health, Romanus Lansiquot, a champion for better health services, ensured that under his watch a grant allocation was made by the European Union, in an EDF grant around 1991 under the Lome agreement, to build a new hospital. There was ongoing discussion between Hon. Romanus Lansiquot and Sir John Compton as to how best to use this grant; Mr. Lansiquot wanted a new hospital on a new site and Sir John Compton felt it better to redevelop VH on the existing site. Under PS Planning Cletus Springer a plan was developed with a UK firm, Tomlin Voss and Associates, to rebuild Victoria Hospital on the existing site. Around the same time the new Millennium Highway was built, and this opened Coubaril lands.
There was a change of government soon thereafter and in May 1997 the government led by Hon. Dr. Kenny Anthony with Hon. Sarah Flood as Minister of Health established health sector reform as a priority. A reform committee was established chaired by Dr. Stephen King and a secretariat was established at the Ministry of Health chaired by then CMO Dr. James St. Catherine; Ms. Xysta Edmund was one of the main technical officers in this secretariat.
These were amazing times; the joyful seeds were planted in that era. It was with a missionary zeal that all members went about the tasks of consultation and the design of a new health service. The Health Sector Reform Report was produced by March 2000; it remains a landmark document. In 1999 Dr. Kenny Anthony led a delegation comprising Sarah Flood-Beaubrun, PS Health Marcia Philbert-Jules (now tragically deceased), PS Planning Alison King-Joseph and Dr. Stephen King, to Barbados to visit the EU representative to gain approval for his decision to build a new hospital on the Coubaril site. The EU Ambassador, himself an engineer, needed little convincing as a new hospital on a new site allowed for a better building without the constraints of rebuilding on the old VH site while operating the hospital during the construction.
Hon. George Odlum, Minister of Foreign Affairs, had secured a grant from the People’s Republic of China to build a new mental hospital to replace the decrepit Golden Hope, also a building from the late 19th century. The discussions then started to build both hospitals on the same site and establish the Millennium Heights Medical Complex, a decision that would cause the integration of these services under one governing board, enhance physical capacity and create efficiency through shared services. This decision was not arrived at easily and indeed did not happen until 2004 when Hon. Damian Greaves was able to convince the then Cabinet of Ministers.
The European Union wanted to ensure that the investment in the new hospital was part of overall health sector reforms to result in a more efficient, effective and equitable health service. It was the work of the National Authorizing Office, which included Mr. Wilfred Pierre and Mr. Medford Francis, and Minister of Finance Dr Kenny Anthony, over the years 1999-2004 to convince the EU that we were committed to the reforms and they should remain committed to the investment. Our main arguments were that this investment was necessary because our hospital plant at Victoria needed to be upgraded and that this investment would be the driver for the overall health sector reform to create the synergistic continuum of care that we all envisaged. The Health Sector Reform Proposals of 2000 were used to show how the government would ensure that the EU concerns would be addressed.
The cost of running Victoria Hospital and health services in general has always been an issue. I remember in 1976 my father, Owen King, reading a proposal for National Health Insurance that he was about to give to the Minister of Finance, Sir John Compton. The proposal was put forward as part of the then Provident Fund, now NIC, to be funded through salary deductions. However, it was Hon. Stephenson King, Minister of Health, who, in 1996, proposed NHI and produced a bill that became the NHI Act.
In 2002 Dr. Kenny Anthony appointed a task force chaired by Ms. Emma Hippolyte, director of NIC, to explore the options of unemployment insurance, pensions for farmers and fishers and national health insurance. I chaired the NHI subcommittee and had the privilege of working under the direction of Ms. Hippolyte, a tireless worker and a great decision maker. The task force engaged the ILO to help with the design and a second landmark document was produced in July 2003: “Issues related to Universal Health care Coverage in Saint Lucia”.
The task force conducted extensive community and stakeholder discussions. I still remember the Canaries consultation one night, conducted by Ms. Hippolyte and me; not even standing room left in the community centre, with a passionate, engaged community, often raucous in their demands. They indicated how important this work is to the common Saint Lucian.
The third landmark document, the Task Force Report on NHI, was produced in 2003. This is how Universal Health Care was born although it was conceived in 1998 during the health reform community consultations. From 2004 to 2006 Ms. Hippolyte and the NIC went into overdrive, health care workers were mobilised into committees to design and operationalise the UHC. A Health Information System was purchased with the source code and a pilot diabetes programme was launched in 2006.
Health workers have been the main contributors to the process. In 1998 the Nurses Association dedicated its national meeting to health reform from which a paper, “Issues and Options” was created; still a useful document, many of the issues and options remain relevant. In 2004 there was a week-long technical workshop during which health workers composed a document: “Technical Plan for the Health Services” which started the process of producing the national strategic plan. The EU, still concerned that the health reforms needed to be realised, funded a consultancy with HERA to help produce the “National Strategic Plan for Health”, the fourth landmark document, which was done by 2006.
The design of the new hospital was done in extensive consultation with VH staff, in user groups by the UK architects, Sir Frederick Snow and Partners Ltd. In fact, it was pleasing to hear Nurse Glasgow, who was leading us on a tour of the OKEU hospital on Sunday 21st February, 2016, state, “The hospital is well-designed in terms of the flow for patients and staff.” The building of the new national hospital continued under the watch of Hon. Dr Keith Mondesir, Minister for Health 2007-2011.
Why name the hospital after Owen King? I insert here the remarks from the opening that I gave on behalf of our family which make the case:
“I thank my family for trusting me to express our gratitude to the people and Government of Saint Lucia. Our gratitude also goes to the Europeans and the European Union who were the main financiers of this hospital. Gratitude goes to the Government of France and our colleagues in Martinique who have a special relationship with us as we move forward together and strive to improve the health service for Saint Lucians. Gratitude goes to all the Saint Lucians who urged the Government to name this hospital after our father, Owen King.
“We send our gratitude to all who wanted to be here but could not: patients, families of patients whose lives he touched, retired nurses and colleagues who worked with him, and the present Victoria Hospital staff who will have to continue his legacy; we know that as you see us in your homes, or hear us on the radio, you celebrate Papa. We are overwhelmed, as we appreciate the significance of naming this national asset, the main health care institution in the Saint Lucia, after our Papa.
“As we celebrate our 37th year of Independence this weekend it is good that today we stop to honour one of our great ones. It is right and proper for us as a people to honour our ancestors, to honour the giants on whose shoulders we stand.
“Owen King was a quiet, gentle giant in health care. He was a gifted surgeon who performed all types of surgery from orthopaedics to general surgery to obstetrics and gynaecology. A nurse once told me that she had seen no surgeon who could remove a baby from the uterus during a Caesarean section as quickly as Owen King. He performed some of the most complex surgery in the basic conditions at Victoria Hospital. The Mondesir family can tell you the story of Owen King opening the chest of their 9-year-old brother to surgically correct a patent ductus arteriosus 45 years ago. Some three years later the young Mondesir was at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and the chief cardiac surgeon there said he could not believe that a surgeon in a small island could have done that surgery so well. Mr. Vance Pilgrim once told me that he remembers Owen King fighting as if fighting for his own life to save the life of a woman who was bleeding profusely.
“He was a doctor who loved knowledge and learning. He loved the science of medicine, and he read and studied throughout his life; his knowledge was always current. He was a patient, thoughtful and compassionate doctor. His thoughtfulness is captured by his comment that “a good surgeon is the one who knows when not to cut.”
Compassion is a product of love: love for people, and love for patients. God, by any definition, is Love and where love is, there is God. Owen King knew this, felt this and acted in this manner. The combination of knowledge and love for people is what made Owen King a great healer. This is what his patients felt when they were in his care. This engendered the confidence of patients and colleagues. This confidence is the deep and quiet confidence of perfect love, which casts out all fear.
Invoking the spirit of Owen King by naming this hospital after him is wise. The stage is now set for us to create that healing ethos within the walls of this hospital inspired by that spirit, inspired by the life of a great Saint Lucian healer, one who showed us how we can heal. We can be encouraged and confident as we, the health workers of this country and the staff of this hospital, start a new chapter in our history, one in which we can be the healers that our people deserve. One love, one health, one people.”
Owen King was the second son of Charles and Amy King. He was born on 23rd July, 1925. The other children of Charles and Amy King were Alan, Thelma, Derek and Joan. Charles, or Charlie, was a “larger than life” character who was the first Saint Lucian postmaster-general. He was also a businessman and the political leader of the People’s Progressive Party. Amy was a businesswoman and housewife.
Owen King grew up in Castries. He attended St. Mary’s College from 1936-1942. He was an island scholar and in 1944 he went to McGill University to pursue a medical degree. He was enjoying life in Canada a little too much for Charlie King’s liking so he transferred to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where he continued his medical degree. He graduated in 1951. He married Anne King nee Bates in June 1951. He returned to Saint Lucia in 1952 and their first child, Jane, was born. He worked as a medical officer in Victoria Hospital for one year and then went to UWI, Mona, Jamaica as a registrar and lecturer. In 1953 he returned to the United Kingdom and was a registrar in Burnley, Lancashire where his second child, Susan, was born. In 1955 he was transferred by the UK Foreign Office to Trinidad as a medical officer and registrar at Port of Spain General Hospital. In 1957 he returned to Scotland to complete his FRCS (Edin), specialist certification in Surgery. In 1959 his third child, Stephen, was born. That year he was sent back to Trinidad by the Foreign Office and transferred to Tobago where he worked until 1962. He wanted to return to his homeland, Saint Lucia, and therefore asked to be transferred to Victoria Hospital. His wish was granted by the Foreign Office and he started work as the first Saint Lucian surgeon at Victoria Hospital. It was then that his legendary work truly commenced.
Together with Dr. Paw St. Rose and Dr. Malcolm Rigsby, he formed the Saint Lucia Medical and Dental Association and was its first president. He did a six-month sabbatical in chest surgery in the UK in 1965, the year in which his fourth child, Alison, was born. He returned to Saint Lucia and his fifth child, Sarah, was born. His last child, Amanda, was born in 1966. He did a short stint as a surgeon in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1968 and a year in Trinidad 1971-1972 when he replaced Dr. Butler at Port of Spain General while Dr. Butler was on sabbatical. He was one of the founders of Tapion Hospital and the first Chairman of the board. He retired in 1998 when he was 73 years old.
He was a builder; he loved doing and making things: his first house at Anse Mahaut which my mother called “The house that Jack built” because it was so crooked, though all the other houses he built sold for tidy sums of money. I remember Sir John Compton talking about the pier that Owen King built at Anse Mahaut. He said he could not understand why Owen was building a pier by throwing concrete into the sea, but years later he saw the beautiful beach that had resulted, appreciating the value of the Anse Mahaut property considerably, and the pier that now looked like a natural rock formation. He said Owen King was wiser than he thought. We, his children, and Cornelius Alfred have many fond memories of carrying river stone, mixing cement and dropping blocks in the sea; that pier was built not only with rocks and mortar but also with love, family love.
He was a farmer, from copra to cocoa to citrus to beautiful orchids. He loved and raised animals: pigs and cows in Anse Mahout, dogs at his home. He loved the land, plants and animals.
He was a sportsman from pole vaulting as a teenager to captain of the University of Edinburgh fencing team. He was selected to go for the UK Olympic trials in 1951, the final year of his medical degree, but he chose instead to finish his degree. He played tennis with his daughters and friends, and he was a sailor; he taught all of us to sail. He started the Saint Lucia Yacht club of which we have great memories of many years as a family. He took us sailing to Martinique, the Grenadines, around Saint Lucia; so many beautiful, loving, family moments.
He was an author and published four books including novels, poetry, meditations and even a short play. He explored humanity and the meaning of life in those writings.
He was a philosopher and loved to discuss philosophy. No comment captures his love of wisdom and life-long learning better than the comment by the then chief education officer, Ms. Augusta Ifill, who said she used to look at him with awe as she saw him, at 80 years of age, coming to the Ministry of Education to write examinations as he pursued a long-distance degree in philosophy.
He was a traveller; I think he visited every continent and multiple countries. He loved to see and experience different lands and different cultures. He loved adventure.
His life has taught us many lessons: we must work hard in service to others; we must challenge ourselves to do more in as many spheres of life as we can; we must be hungry for knowledge and commit to life-long learning; we must listen carefully, observe everything and reflect on life, its meaning, and our role in making the world a better place; we must love the land and what it can produce; we must live life to the fullest Anne King, Owen’s wife, was his main support, his “rock” throughout his life. She was an intelligent, well-educated woman of high moral values and was very disciplined. She was a strong woman. She was the steady hand on the helm of our family; she weathered all the marital storms, kept the family together and the ship on course. She was the only daughter of James and Doris Bates. James Bates was a soldier (a marine) who fought in both World War I and World War II. He was badly burned in an explosion in World War II. The family was not rich and Anne King grew up in a humble home in Edinburgh. She met Owen King at a students’ dance; she did not have the bus fare to get home so Owen lent her the tuppence for the bus fare. She says she was a cheap date but I think it was the best investment of twopence ever. They were married for 59 years.
I remember 12th May, 2010 when he called me in the early morning. There was an unusual tone to his voice. He asked me to pick him up and convey him to Tapion Hospital where his wife, our mother, was in a coma. He insisted that he had to get there by 8 a.m. We entered her room, he sat by her bedside and took her hand, and in his last desperate act of love he gave her his will to live. She left with it at 9 a.m. that morning. From that day Owen King was never himself again, until he finally passed away quietly at his home with all of us around him on 15th May, 2013.
The question: “What next?” There is no doubt that our health sector is not delivering what the people want or indeed, more importantly, need. We are at a crossroads now. Will we continue in an environment of negativity, a “can’t do” state, a “not my fault” continuum, in “a complaint mode”? Or will we answer the call? Owen King shows a way: the way of a healer. A healer, first and foremost, sees the people who need the service and does all that is necessary to deliver that service with whatever resources are present. It will not be easy, and the effort required is great. Well, it is now up to us. We will only succeed if we approach the task with faith, confidence and clear focus on what we want to achieve. We must pursue the health reforms with diligence and perseverance. It is the love for people that we each must have that is paramount if we want to produce the health service that we all want. The EU has invested in us; that is tangible belief in us. We have a covenant now with our people, our ancestors and the EU. This is our time to seize the day – carpe diem. We know what needs to be done and the time is now, and we can do it with the deep joy of serving our vocation, with the perfect love that casts out fear. So, we ask, “What’s in a name?”