Kara Kara boy returns as lead surgeon in Guyana’s first bypass surgery

To many people Dr. Gary Stephens is the extrovert, bald-style man with a trademark smile at the Caribbean Heart Institute (CHI) who recently led the medical team in Guyana’s first by-pass surgery.

His current life is defined by a medical shuttle between the Maimonides Hospital in the US and CHI, which is his brainchild, and where he functions as lead surgeon and Chief Executive Officer.

In some quarters he is remembered as the bold, young doctor who returned home after studying and sought to change the disagreeable working conditions at the public hospital. But after two public protests and growing frustration, he joined the myriad ranks of migrants and ended up in Brooklyn, New York.

At the time he was unsure as to how his life would turn out but there was one thing he was certain of – he would one day return home to Guyana and play a major role in the local healthcare system. Reminiscing on those days, which were more than a decade ago, during a recent interview with Stabroek News, Dr. Stephens said it is hard to believe “I am just a boy from Kara Kara, Linden who had a big dream.”

He flashes his trademark smile, sits up in the chair at his fairly comfortable office at CHI and rubs both hands as if preparing to operate on the questions for the interview. The hospital attire he is wearing adds gravitas to his actions but then he breaks into conversation about going to school in the mining town. Every five minutes, the phone rings or a staffer walks in to remind him of his various commitments for the morning. As serious as he is about keeping his engagements, he seemed happy to share his story so the interview took off.

“I spent my final school years at McKenzie High School where I wrote ‘A’ Levels and shortly after that I was awarded a government scholarship to study in India. I wanted to be a doctor and I worked hard to realize that dream.”

“True I was almost 18, still a child, when I left Guyana but I was excited and eager to study. What I was unprepared for was the gas tragedy that killed thousands of Indians in Bhopal where I was residing in 1984,” Dr. Stephens recalled.

He noted that the tragedy caused when some 35 tons of toxic gases leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, owned by the US-based multinational Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) and the Indian affiliate Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), was devastating to witness and its impact on him was so great that after he left India three years later to work briefly in the US, he did not want to return to complete his studies. The accident resulted in the loss of over 7,000 lives and as the years progressed, more persons died from illnesses related to gas exposure.

Working conditions

After completing his studies, Dr. Stephens returned to Guyana to serve in the local health sector and started his career at the public hospital. He said the early days were great but noted that there were some things he was unhappy about regarding the working conditions so he organized a protest which was well supported. At that time the People’s National Congress (PNC) was in power. Some of the concerns raised were later addressed but a few years later the situation degenerated and another protest was organized, this time the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was in government. Though the strikes brought attention to the various issues, he said, the general atmosphere was no longer conducive for him so he left.

The move to the US was initially a step back since he was required to start as a hospital intern. But Dr. Stephens complied even though he had already been practising in Guyana. However he said the training he received locally was so sound that when he got over there the first few years were a breeze. After completing his years in general surgery he went on to do cardiac surgery and was later trained in heart transplantation.

As historic and ground-breaking as the local by-pass surgery was and the enormous pride he takes in being a part of it, Dr. Stephens said, transplant surgery is what he aspires to do in Guyana and some day he hopes that dream is realized. He has done a number of big surgeries in the US during his time at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and various other medical institutions in the US but according to him, nothing compares to transplant surgery. He said there is nothing more miraculous than travelling miles with someone’s heart to give it to another person.

A miracle

“That’s a miracle and one that I get a different feeling from every time I am a part of it,” Dr. Stephens noted. He said the possibility of such a surgery being done here is remote at this time but not impossible.

On his wedding day a few years ago, Dr. Stephens said, a meeting was arranged for him to meet President Bharrat Jagdeo who was in New York at the time to discuss the prospects of setting up the local heart institute and he did not hesitate. Since the idea was swimming around in his head for sometime and he was looking for a positive feedback, he recalled jumping at the chance to meet Jagdeo while assuring his wife-to-be that he would not be late for church. The meeting came off and he actually made it in time for the church service.

Having received the response he was looking for, Dr. Stephens called up his good friend, Romeo Vandenburg, whom he described as someone who would probably never say no to him, about financing the project. Vandenburg agreed and within the space of two years CHI was ready for take-off. But before returning home to begin the construction, he travelled around the Caribbean assessing the various coronary care programmes being offered to get a sense of the quality of services CHI should provide.

Then it happened. The heart institute was constructed within the eastern wing of the Georgetown Public Hospital and it opened its doors to the public one year ago. Dr. Stephens and Vandenburg were both here for the opening and according to him it was a momentous occasion for them.

He said the institute would not have progressed at the pace that it did if it wasn’t for the continuous support of President Jagdeo. Since the institute has had to import equipment as the services were upgraded, he said, getting past customs and ensuring everything was here in a timely manner was made rather simple with the support of the government. He noted too that the Ministry of Health and the public hospital have been unstinting in their support of the institute.

“Jagdeo is someone we could do business with and we have found the local health sector to be immensely supportive. CHI is where it is today because of them,” Dr. Stephens added.

Reflecting on his earlier life growing up in Linden in the home of his parents, Shirley and Claude Stephens, he said, the journey to where he is now seemed far off but with their support he was able to make it. Two of his sisters out of eight other siblings have also turned to a career in the health sector but he is the only doctor in the family.

Since his career has been pretty demanding, he said, there has been little time to start a family of his own but that is something he hopes to change very soon. He said his wife Susan Ramdhaney has been his personal doctor and steady support.

It has been 42 years since the little boy from Kara Kara came into this world and started dreaming big while still very young. Today, it does not appear as though he could dream any bigger but he disagrees and hopes to accomplish much more, particularly in Guyana.

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