When Carol Harris retired recently from her job as a community health worker in the Berbice River, her children had a surprise ‘welcome home’ celebration for the mother who spent more of her time in service to the local communities than at home.
She admits with a shy smile that they were right because even in the dead of night she would leave her warm bed whenever she got “a call” informing her that someone was in need of her help. And that call never came by phone, but always in the form of someone calling her from the riverside with the news that there was a resident in urgent need of assistance.
But even as she admits that she may have spent more time at work than at home, Harris said that she would do it all over again in the blink of an eye if asked. Initially the heath centre was located beneath her home because none was established until some years later.
“It was kind of hectic but rewarding; challenging at times and I have so many stories I can tell,” she said during an interview with the Sunday Stabroek.
She noted that the work was never about the money but rather a commitment to her job, and she was always on time at work even though no one would have known if she was late. Similarly, she made sure her reports to the regional office were submitted on time, even if she had to call them in on the pay phone.
She said her husband, Allan Harris, had always been very supportive of her throughout the years; they have been married for 30 years and have four children. There have been times when her husband and sons would come in search of her because, as she put it, “Wherever night caught me I just stayed there until they came.”
Many times she would be on her way home and she would be met by a resident who had a relative in need of assistance, but she never hesitated even though many times she was tired.
And there were occasions too when she had already left for work and the next thing her husband heard was that she had left for New Amsterdam with a sick patient. Sometimes she just borrowed clothes from a nearby resident because she knew valuable time would be lost if she returned home to get dressed.
“It was hectic but rewarding because I have been able to develop relationship with people I never thought I would have known,” she said.
Fondly known by many as ‘Miss Carol’, Harris worked as the De Velde community health worker for twenty-five years. But it was not only the De Velde community she served but many others as well, such as G, Fort Nassau, Bartica and Sand Hills, just to name a few. There were many years when she was the closest the residents would get to medical attention.
She has treated most of the residents who lived in those areas (including this reporter) at some point, and sometimes it was not just a medical complaint for which they wanted attention, but they also needed a listening ear.
Harris wore many hats during those years, some of which she will continue to wear as long as she lives, because she became a counsellor and confidante to many and she might be the repository of some of the area’s ‘top secrets.’
A staunch Seventh Day Adventist, Harris said she always factored in God whenever she worked, and she believes he played a very important role as she never lost a patient.
It could be the fact that she has formed such good relationships with all the residents of the various communities that no one ever says no to her. She never demanded – she is a very soft spoken woman who always has a smile on her face – but simply asked for what she needed, and whatever she requested, whether it was a boat and a driver to take a very ill person to the nearest hospital in New Amsterdam many miles away, or clothes and other items for a family who had lost their home, it was granted.
She revealed that many times she had been forced to act as a midwife and a medex; even though there are many things that a community health worker cannot do at that level, in the remote communities where she worked she was the closest many of her patients came to a doctor or a medex.
She recalled the experience of a patient who was suffering from hypertension and diabetes and who had fallen into a state of unconsciousness. After she had sent one of her sons many miles by boat to borrow a sugar testing machine, she discovered that the patient’s sugar level was very low. Before she got the machine Harris said the woman’s relatives were holding on to the view that her sugar was high and she should give her medication to bring it down, but she insisted that they wait for the machine and they were all surprised that it was low instead of high.
“But then I did not know what to do because she could not swallow or anything, but I prayed… and I took a spoon and used it as a spatula, and then I made some sweet sugar water… took a syringe and try to push it down her throat as far as I could to get her to swallow…” Harris said.
The relatives had given up and were prepared for her death but she told them she was still alive and there was hope, so they made arrangements to take the patient to New Amsterdam. Before they arrived, however, she regained consciousness and by the time they got to the township she managed to walk out of the boat.
That was just one of the many amazing experiences Harris has had during her years of work, and she recalled that many times she paddled for hours to see patients and would assist relatives to wash and clean the sick persons, teaching them how to better care for their loved ones.
And although she was born and grew up in the Berbice River, Harris said she has a phobia about water, and many times it was a family member or a willing resident who would journey with her those trips.
At some point an engine was provided, but it was too costly to use around the clock so there were still times even with an engine she used a paddle. The engine came into play when she was forced to travel miles and miles on a weekly basis to other communities which had no health worker.
‘Cut off a limb’
“It is easier said than done; it was as if you took off a limb, some part of me, I had to really work and try to deal with it,” was how Harris described her retirement.
As she approached her retirement date Harris said she stopped telling her patients that she would be leaving soon as she did not want them to have a farewell celebration for her as she “felt she could not deal with it.”
But the residents did not forget, and shortly after she had left the job she was told she was needed at the health centre. When she arrived it was to be greeted by residents who just wanted to say goodbye. They did it in fine style as they had a semi-cultural celebration and many of them told stories about their encounter with the health worker who never said no.
As she approached retirement age many of the residents told her that they would still visit her home when they felt unwell as they were not prepared to work with the new health worker. But she quickly told them that she could only advise them when the new health worker was off the job and that they would learn to love the person who took her place.
And even though she has retired, Harris said she is still busy and that maybe that welcome home party her children held was in vain, as she is out helping with sick relatives and is a very active church member. She has organized the young women of the church into a group with the aim of helping residents, especially those who are shut-ins.
“It is a part of me, I loved what I was doing,” Harris said, and when asked what she would do should she be requested to come out of retirement she quickly responded, “Work, I enjoyed it, it was just a part of me.”
“My joy is seeing someone comfortable; you call me at midnight I am there, you call me in the wee hours of the morning I am there,” she said, adding that she never entertained the word ‘no’ because “once I can help I will help.”