Defying the odds and providing high-quality cardiac service
Dr Gary Stephens is a ‘Special Person’
By Sharmain Cornette
It was a combination of steadfast determination and genuine support from his wife that drove him to defy all odds in his quest to achieve what some thought was literally an impossible task.
In recognition of the fact that Guyana did not have the capabilities to deal with cardiac problems, Dr Gary Stephens after becoming a Cardiac Surgeon envisaged that he could somehow forge collaborations in order to offer a cardiac service to the local public.
But his intent was dubbed as ‘crazy’ and ‘impossible’ by the many medical professionals he had initially approached for support in this regard.
However, at the age of 44, Dr Gary Stephens can today boast of the fact that he is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the lone Cardiac facility in Guyana and has been responsible for a number of inaugural operations since the opening of the Caribbean Heart Institute (CHI) in the year 2006. The move represents one of the many successful public/private partnerships that the government has embraced and supported over the years.
More than 300 cardiac procedures have been undertaken at the Heart Institute which is located in the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) compound.
And he always knew that he was destined to be a doctor just like the doctors he used to read of when he was just a young boy.
Born and raised in the mining town of Linden, by his father, Claude Stephens, a Guymine worker, and mother Shirley who was a home maker, Gary is the fourth of 11 siblings and the only one of his family members, as far back as he could remember, that dared to venture into the medical field.
His passion for being a doctor was motivated by his visits to the library as a young boy, a pastime he managed to balance with his love for athletics. He was in fact an outstanding athlete back in the days.
But according to Dr Stephens his motivation to visit the library was driven by the way the librarian would read.
“Those were the days when the Public Library in Linden had a storytelling time in the afternoons and on Saturdays. The librarian was so good that you would make the effort to go there and sit down and listen. The way the librarian read whatever book she had, it just encouraged you to want to read. She made me want to read…you just wanted to pick up a book and just enjoy it the same way she read it to you.”
As a result he became an avid reader. And among the first books that the young Gary Stephens would delve into was a book about ‘The Six Greatest Doctors’.
Having read about the real-life doctors, Dr Stephens said that even then he knew that he wanted to be a doctor.
“I was absolutely sure that I wanted to be a doctor after reading that book so I went home and told my mother that I wanted to be a doctor….I have come to realise that reading can help to shape your life.”
He received his secondary education at the Mackenzie High School where he displayed profound understanding of his subjects, particularly those in the Science stream. The aspiring doctor then went on to undertake the University of London’s General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary and Advanced Level Examinations respectively, excelling in Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Mathematics.
After completing his studies he returned to the Mackenzie High School where he taught Chemistry and Mathematics to students preparing for the London examinations from 1983 to 1984.
He was subsequently awarded a joint scholarship from the Government of Guyana and India to attend the Gandhi Medical College.
It was in the year 1990 that he entered the workforce at the Georgetown Public Hospital, venturing initially into the Department of Surgery and then into the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1991. And those years were not without some challenges, Dr Stephens recounted.
He however remained at the public hospital until 1994 when he migrated to the United States to take up permanent residence.
And it was while he was a resident of the U.S., Dr Stephens recounted, that he became interested in thoracic surgery, disclosing that he always had a love for cardiac interventions.
He did his surgery residency training at the Brooklyn Hospital in New York and there he completed the General Surgery programme before specialising in Cardiacthoracic Surgery.
Initially he did some thoracic work (chest and lung) at the Maimonides Medical Centre also in New York and he finished his heart training at Newark Medical Centre in New Jersey.
It was after he had completed two years of additional training that Dr Stephens then decided to explore the Heart Surgery programme at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio with a view of specialising in this area. He stayed at the Ohio facility for about one year where he gained the rare skill of heart transplantation.
He is now Chief of Thoracic Surgery at Brooklyn Hospital and a staff Attending Cardiac Surgeon at Maimonides Medical Center where he met his wife of almost five years, Susan Ramdhaney-Stephens, a Gastroenterologist.
“When we met I was just starting my Cardiothoracic fellowship training in 2002 she was starting internal medicine residency at Maimonides Medical Centre at the time…I told her that it was always my dream to go back to the Caribbean and start a Heart Institute because there were no heart surgeons in Guyana…”
Little did he know that his intended wife, at that time, had no intention of returning to the Caribbean. At the age of 19, the Trinidad-Born Susan had migrated to the United States and had promised herself never to return.
However, according to Dr. Stephens, their relationship developed to such an extent that the question of marriage came into the picture.
“I realised that we were close but I didn’t want to go against her wishes…I knew that I wanted to return so I was willing to give up marrying my true love to fulfil my destiny.”
But it was just when he thought that he had to give up something valuable that his wife-to-be announced that she was willing to stand by him and urged him not to give up on his dream.
With his sweetheart’s support, Dr Stephens said that he begun travelling to a number of Caribbean islands including Barbados, Trinidad, and St Croix, that are known for providing cardiac care and offer heart surgery.
“When I started talking about setting up a heart institute in Guyana all of these guys told me that it was impossible…They said I was mad…But somehow I knew I would be able to do it anyway.”
According to the doctor, the biggest challenge he encountered in his quest to establish the CHI was obtaining funds. However his plans for the Institute fell right into place on December 11, 2004. Not only does that date mark his wedding anniversary, but it was also the day that the doctor was able to seal a deal with President Bharat Jagdeo who had assured assistance to help with bringing CHI to fruition.
“I told Susan that I heard that the President was going to be in New York for a meeting and that I needed to meet him…and that was the morning of our wedding so she warned me to return in time for the wedding,” Dr Stephens recounted with a gleeful grin.
The doctor as a result tied the knot a happy man for more than one reason.
The infrastructural set-up of the facility was about two years in the making before its 2006 commissioning. The first open-heart operation was conducted in October 2007 paving the way for a number of other inaugural operations, and at the same time fulfilling the dream of a young boy who had dared to dream big after reading a book.