Her name may hardly have rung a bell when she first hit the local TV screen—understandable, in a country where we care more about how you sound and how you look than what you say. But I rather suspect that how we would feel about it was the last thing on her mind when Onel Sanford-Belle decided to name her show ‘Sanford-Belle Presents.’ Indeed, she may very well have first named the show before actually starting to put camera, lights and subjects into action. But, name regardless, it would be hard to miss the show itself, five or six repeated weekly episodes having already been aired on DBS —and other Caribbean and North American stations.
For no reason that anyone will understand, I hadn’t seen any of the first four shows—not even the very first one with the Prime Minister explaining the political and economic gymnastics of leading an island with the strongest economy in the OECS in these toughest of times the world over.
Each time I happened to see a promo for the next show while watching DBS News, I promised myself to take time out from eternally fingering my keyboard to see what Onel next has to present—and to finally give her my much-promised feedback. But getting there wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to take on the oxymoron approach of writing a review of a continuing event. Nor did I know enough of the host to write anything about her. She’d simply appeared on my screen from nowhere after Timothy Poleon disappeared to make his new choice. But I eventually got around to finding out what Onel would be presenting that particular Tuesday evening.
My intro was nothing out of the ordinary. It was the first of a two-part feature on diabetes that offered the bare facts of the dire straits in which St Lucia finds itself in treating some treatable but extremely costly killer illnesses. The world and regional health institutions say St. Lucia has the world’s highest number of diabetics per head of population. I’ve always had a problem with us treating this like something to be ashamed of, instead of using that fact to better strengthen our ability properly to treat the disease. I’d always regarded the dialysis units I’ve seen here as hell holes in which persons with this crippling ailment are sentenced to a lifetime of being strapped to electric chairs processing your blood through your veins. I’d also known that most diabetics either owe a lot to the hospital or find it difficult to keep up payments. From what I’d seen and what I knew about the modernity of the machines and the length of the waiting list, I’d long regarded diabetics the same as I feel about Sickle Cell patients: bearers of inestimable levels of eternal pain and suffering.
Thanks to Sanford-Belle Presents (hereinafter referred to as SBP) I now know it can cost as much as $4 million (or two-thirds the budget at Victoria Hospital) to treat 40 dialysis patients (out of a population not too far from 200,000). Thanks to that one SBP show, I also now know the shameful fact that a diabetic former St. Lucia Cabinet Minister and several times elected MP who lost both his legs to diabetes, had to elect to voluntarily leave a local private medical hospital and make his bed back home after his insurance company pulled the plug and his accumulated bills reached unsustainable—and therefore quite unhealthy — proportions.
Frankly, I didn’t watch the entire program. Probably because I was viewing as a viewer instead of a professional critic, I found some of it touched my aging heart. But then, I suspect that’s exactly what Onel intended: to bring viewers like me to a level of shock and awe about the stark-naked realities of a St. Lucia where people die waiting in line for government-sponsored dialysis, only able to access an available space if a patient dies. Again, thanks to SFB, St Lucians actually heard a doctor speak the plain truth that there are patients who opt instead to die instead of taking dialysis, one describing her referral to that unit as “a death sentence.”
I know SFB also presented other topics – like focusing on St Lucia’s place economically in the OECS, an exploration of the premium car market here and the use of firearms by police and citizens alike (including criminals, I guess…). I didn’t see the other shows (Onel understands how much free time this job gives us to watch TV), but the most feedback I’ve got from those who’ve seen all or most is always about what one lady friend described as “the health ones.” Like me, she’d been touched by the revelations about the real state of diabetic care—and tracing traces of pediatric disability in St. Lucia (or being able to detect early signs that your child needs help . . .)
Onel and SFB have broken some glass ceilings here. Now rooted here (even though not up-shooted from local soil), she’s brought to the screen some scenes that local writers, producers and directors for TV have not in this way. Maybe we’ve taken our internationally-designated diabetic status too seriously wrong and over-reacted by taking the state of the diabetic for granted. I probably did see them that way too—until my late friend Irvin Reid showed me a letter he’d penned related to his condition in which he’d actually estimated the number of days he had left to live, based on the hospital’s dialysis analysis. Like the former Education Minister, his dialysis cost had become too costly and the machine was about to be turned off on him—but not without him penning a missive to the then Minister of Health making a case, not for himself, but (as he told me) “for diabetics yet unborn.”
If Onel has a thing about bringing home to us the real nature of the illnesses we take for granted, I would advise that she interview a few Sickle Cell patients. I spent one week at Victoria between two Sickle Cell patients—and that was one of the few times I took time to write a poem, this time trying to imagine what would drive humans into such pain as to each month be ambulanced to a hospital ward where they’d cry and beg, in full and flowing tears, for the nurses or doctors on duty to simply “cut off my legs for me, PLEASE!!!” (I don’t think I’ll watch that one, but I’m sure it’ll cause more persons to understand why Paula Cauldron is so sorry that too many St. Lucians still don’t seem to get it about Sickle Cell, until it comes a-calling!)
There’s something about Onel that fits her squarely in the middle of (bridging or breeching) the generational professional gap that affords Caribbean professionals to benefit from the past and the present. I started writing here during the transition from the fountain pen to the typewriter in the Caribbean. Onel would have come with the era of the computer and the Internet—bridging that gap between the likes of (say) Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey, a little bit of both of whom I see in her. She’s also lived and worked in and outside the Caribbean and therefore has a wider world view than those among us who’ve never left our shores.
I’ve heard hardly-disguised professional jealousy reflected in references to “her inability to speak or understand Creole,” but not much more. Some prefer to suffer in silence, almost stifling on swallowing their raging xenophobic outpourings. That apart, I’ve heard more regular people who’ve said they “didn’t know” something until they saw it on her show—which is what a TV show is supposed to be about: leaving you to remember something you’ll never forget. (Not exactly Shock TV, but as close to it as Onel would probably go here without even realizing it.)
Here’s hoping SBP brings more to our living rooms that will register on the hard drives of our memory banks and bring us to always ask: “What’ll she do next?”