A Journey Back Home

By Keesha West & Dr. Philip Blum

In 2018, after the passing of my late husband, I visited my family’s home in Jamaica. I returned to learn more about my culture. While in Jamaica, I learned about the town of Port Royal and the devastation the area had previously faced. This area has no medical care, no small grocery stores and residents are left without the everyday resources that we take for granted. This area had previously been one of the richest parts of the island of Jamaica but many of its previous residents had left the area, because it was considered wicked and there was not much left of the parish.

As I was leaving the Giddy House monument, in Port Royal, Jamaica, I texted my Dr. Philip Blum and asked if he would help me with a medical mission in Port Royal. He stated he would love to help and that this was a great idea. I was thrilled because I knew it would be of great service to my people.

In October 2019, I made an assessment trip prior to our scheduled mission trip that would take place in January 2020. During this trip, I met with the Ministers of Health and a local physician, Dr. Kelvin Bird to discuss the location where we would see patients. We were fortunate to be introduced to these connections thanks to an organization called Jamaica Good Life.

When I returned to Houston, Dr. Blum and I met to discuss the trip. I took my time choosing participants for this medical mission trip because I viewed this as an opportunity to also build trust with the residents of the area we would be working in. The Medical Missions Department at Memorial Hermann provided assistance with both my assessment trip and the upcoming mission. Our former CEO, Chuck Stokes, was very supportive of this trip and he, along with Dr. Blum helped to arrange for a donated private jet flight for the group to use. This jet allowed us to safely bring equipment needed to perform nerve conduction studies.

During our trip, the Prime Minister of Jamaica visited the parish and stopped by and thanked us for coming to provide care for residents. Previous groups had visited the area and the parish was given empty promises and taken advantage of, the locals took to the foreigners and destroyed their equipment and some never returned back to the states from some of the stories told to me. I was very fortune to have family and local connections help, in making sure we were safe and everyone made it back safe.

Once my team left to go back to the states, I stayed back to visit my brother and family. The feedback we received was amazing. There were numerous requests for us to come back to different parishes to provide medical help. People from different parishes had heard about what we did and were so thankful and they felt a sense of trust and that was one of my main goals for our trip.

This trip was a passion of mine and I’m so thankful that I was able to coordinate such an awesome team to join me in giving back. They were selfless and left their friends and families to help me fulfill my dream and it was rewarding for all of us.  To this day, my family asks when our team will return to Jamaica. I hope when the COVID-19 pandemic is over and we are able to safely travel we can return. I recently opened a shop in the parish that offers food and other necessities and my brother is helping to oversee this store. Ultimately, I hope that we can work with the Missions of Health to establish an annual pop-up clinic that supports all parts of Jamaica.

LaKeesha West, Neurology Diagnostic Tech III

Keesha brought this idea to me and it quickly grew. Many of our office physicians and staff wanted to find a way to make the trip. It was incredible for me to see so many people wanting to help. Some people had to get passports for the first time; some had to arrange for childcare. Everyone just kind of stopped and figured out how to help.

The government funded health clinic in Port Royal shut down years ago due to various natural disasters that greatly impacted the area so there was no local treatment available or even a place to work. We were fortunate to have space donated by a local church, Light House Tabernacle, to set-up our clinic. In order to access health care resources, including a pharmacy, residents have to travel to another town approximately five miles away. This was a challenge for many. 

The first day, we did our best to turn an open church into a medical clinic with treatment privacy. When we arrived the next day, we were met by a long line of individuals seeking care. Word had traveled via social media apps, word-of-mouth and radio announcements.

Over the course of four days we were able to see 145 patients. People came from as far away as Kingston, an hours drive away. We saw patients ages 15 and up from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

We knew heading into the trip that there would be a huge need for neurology services. There is little available on the island.  The residents have little contact with medical professionals generally and there is resulting low medical sophistication in the general population. The patients arrived with the widest variety of disease, neurological and medical, mild and severe. We turned no one away.

In addition to assessing issues, we provided a lot of health education, guidance on prescription medications especially for hypertension. We also did some nerve conduction testing. We found some people in need of surgery and provided them with the information on their surgical options. The vast majority of our time was spent providing health education and dispelling various health myths.

Pain was also a common issue for many that came to the clinic. This included arthritic pain, back pain and neck pain. We advised them on some simple prescription and over-the-counter medications and exercises that are safe and effective.

This entire experience was memorable for our team. We were fortunate to receive donation of resources that helped us travel safely to Jamaica and execute this missions trip.

We hope to return some day. The most gratifying and useful intervention would be to enable local services to self-administer and I think we can help in some way to actualize that. The people are capable, energetic, and independent. The government has just upgraded (or to be more accurate, re-upgraded) the port there. Infrastructure can grow and if it does, medical capabilities can grow as well. Then Port Royal’s medical community will be able to meet the local needs, be more accessible to the population, and become self-sustaining.

Dr. Philip Blum, affiliated physician with Memorial Hermann Neurosciences Associates at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center

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