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I started writing this column last week Tuesday (September 29). In this line of work, there’s the expectation that topics would be au courant. So in deciding on one so far in advanced from today’s printing, I ran the risk of appearing out of touch with what’s in the news or on the national consciousness. For example – yesterday was the budget presentation; surely that was a topic worth writing about. But the truth is I read a story last Tuesday that made me angry­— so angry that it motivated me to start writing.

The story was the passing of Ms Sheranne Samuel, a procedural clerk assistant at the Parliament. She was 34-years-old—a person in the prime of her life who was described by her colleagues and public officials as intelligent, polite, and diligent. My condolences go out to her family; may her memory be a blessing.

According to reports, she was admitted to the Port-of-Spain General Hospital on September 21 complaining of a severe headache accompanied by nausea and dizziness. She later slipped into a coma and, after showing no sign of brain activity, was taken off of life support and subsequently passed away the following Sunday.

Unfortunately, people die every day from acute ailments. But what thrust this incident into the national spotlight was the news that Ms Samuel was unable to have a CT scan done at the Port-of-Spain hospital. Why? The scanner was not functioning. To make matters worse, neither was the one at Mt Hope… and the nearest working scanner at a public health institution was in Sangre Grande. Arrangements were eventually made— 19 hours after she was admitted— for Ms Samuel to have the scan done at St Clair Medical, which was paid for privately. I’m purposely going over these facts because it lends credence to the state of our public healthcare system – hospitals that are underfunded, under-resourced, and understaffed.

But the maddening part of Ms Samuel’s situation was the response from the Health Minister and the North West Regional Health Authority. Minister Deyalsingh explained that the scanners needed replacement parts that were not kept locally and that the disruption (of flights) caused by COVID-19 was the reason for the delay in repairing the equipment. However, he said that the lack of the CT scan wouldn’t have mattered because patients are treated based on symptoms. This point was echoed in a statement released by the NRWHA, which stated that Ms Samuel received the appropriate care from the moment she was admitted. In other words, none of this is their fault. Ms Samuel’s death was an unavoidable tragedy—plain and simple. Case closed.

But what happened to Ms Samuel is hardly a unique occurrence; one could even say that she is just the latest casualty of our woefully inadequate healthcare system. Saying that the CT scanner wasn’t necessary deflects from the issue; these are problems that existed before COVID-19. So while the minister may have been honest about the problems with CT scanner, he is also being disingenuous. Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised.

As Dr David Bratt noted in his previous column, “The worst thing that successive governments have done in T&T is to inculcate that sense of hopelessness and helplessness… the belief that nothing will change.” And this includes our public healthcare system; we’ve gotten used to hospitals with not enough beds, not enough meds, and not enough staff.

Now, I am not suggesting that getting the CT scan sooner might have helped Ms Samuel’s situation. But that doesn’t change the fact that all of them should be working. Taking the necessary steps to source the parts and repair the equipment is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health. The buck stops with Minister Deyalsingh, and blaming COVID-19 is a shameful way of shirking his duties.

You know what the irony here is? Despite having free public healthcare, the state covers the medical expenses for care that Members of Parliament receive at private facilities. It’s bad enough that Ms Samuel’s scan at St Clair Medical had to be paid for out-of-pocket because the one at POSGH wasn’t functioning, but having her wait for 19 hours is a disgrace. Do you think an MP would have had to wait that long? And what if they needed emergency medical care that wasn’t available locally? I suspect that even with the borders closed, in the same time that Ms Samuel had to wait, an MP would have gotten a travel exemption, arranged a flight to the US, and checked themselves into a hospital. And, as we saw with former MP Maxie Cuffie, the government might have even found a way to pay for it. That’s our tax dollars at work.

Imagine… Ms Samuel may have spent her last conscious moments not only in pain and in fear, but in frustration caused by the state of our country’s healthcare system. That thought alone is heart-breaking. But to have the Health Minister and the NRWHA dodge and deflect this issue is infuriating. We don’t need to hear about who and what’s at fault.

Fix the machines! Fix the healthcare system! Until she passed away, Ms Samuel performed her duties beyond reproach.

The Health Minister and the NRWHA need to follow her example.