“I have that feeling of satisfaction; I am satisfied because I was able to help. You go into medicine because you want to see people get better and in this field you can see that.”
By Sharmain Grainger
Although our Special Person’s entry into the world was just in time for the Christmas holidays in 1956, bringing immense cheer to her parents, it was years later that her ultimate purpose was realised – to become a dynamic personality in an area that few local health professionals had dared to trod.
Dr Holly Alexander is considered a “rare breed” in these parts; she is a Leprologist/Dermatologist, with years of experience, who still renders a priceless service to the nation. Her contribution to the health sector is fittingly being recognised today in light of the fact that Guyana, and the rest of the world, is celebrating World Leprosy Day, which is observed annually on the last Sunday in January.
Leprosy, though contagious, is a curable disease once treated. However, there are still many who continue to suffer from its potentially debilitating effects. Moreover, Dr Alexander has for the past two decades worked valiantly to help repress the disease locally.
During a recent interview, she disclosed to me that although leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is considered by many as a rare disease, it is however, more prevalent than one would imagine in these parts.
But thanks to health professionals such as Dr Alexander, we are currently in the phase of eliminating the disease. And it was quite intriguing to hear the medical expert detail Guyana’s journey to this notable accomplishment.
In pointing out that the World Health Organisation defines the elimination phase of the disease as when only one person per 100, 000 population is being treated for leprosy, Dr Alexander was only too eager to inform that “on average only 25 to 30 new cases of leprosy are seen here per year.” This as a result, she noted, has placed Guyana on the right track.
In fact, Dr Alexander, in a most soothing tone of voice, assured that the populace shouldn’t be too concerned about the disease since “literature tells us that 95 per cent of the world’s population will never get leprosy. Although it is spread via the respiratory route, your resistance would have to be very low for it to be transmitted”.
But since the disease is said to have a relatively long transmission period, she explained that it might take awhile before some patients present with it.
“Leprosy is the numb spot disease, to put it mildly, and therefore persons with a spot might have it; it might look like ‘lotta’, it might look like a birthmark, it might look like ringworm, but if it is a numb spot there are other things that we look for to determine if it really is leprosy,” Dr Alexander said.
She reflected that in a diverse medical career, it has been detecting and helping to eradicate leprosy that has given her the most satisfaction over the years. Her selfless dedication was aptly recognised in 2011 when she received a Medal of Service (M.S.) from the Government of Guyana for her years of service.
Born Holly Patricia Amsterdam on December 21, 1956, she grew up on the Essequibo Coast with her parents, Lewis and Victorine.
With a grin on her face she proudly informed me, “I usually say I am a true Guyanese…I was conceived in Berbice, born in Essequibo, and I lived in Demerara.” She is currently a resident of South Ruimveldt Gardens, Georgetown.
As the fourth of six children, one of whom is deceased; Dr Alexander recalled that her upbringing was a rather humble one. While her mother was a home-maker, her father was a worker at the Ondermeening Boys School and later became an agriculturist. He passed away just last year.
During her interview, Dr Alexander disclosed that because her father was an agriculturist he was soon making arrangements for the family to move to Berbice. In fact she recalled that home in Berbice was on the 63 Beach; “the last house on the Beach to be precise,” she told me, adding that life there was pretty pleasant.
Although her secondary education started at Line Path in Berbice, her schooling experience had in fact started at Johanna Cecelia on the Essequibo Coast.
She remained at Line Path Secondary for one year, because by then her father had decided to move his family to Anira Street, Queenstown, Georgetown. This saw her being transferred to the Charlestown Secondary. And according to a blushing Dr Alexander, “I am a proud product of that School.”
Soon after completing her secondary education she was ready to enter the world of work; first taking up a job at a Pine Factory at Industrial Site, before moving to the medical department at the National Insurance Scheme (NIS). She remained at the latter entity for about four years working to help regularise payments, particularly in far-flung areas.
But her ambition had always been to become a nurse.
“My mom said I was talking about becoming a nurse since I was six (years old),” she recounted.
So it was understandable when she made up her mind in 1976 to apply for training in the nursing field at the Georgetown Hospital’s Nursing School. And even as she neared the finish-line to becoming a qualified Staff Nurse, the young Holly was completely “swept off of her feet” by a dashing young man named Vincent Alexander, the current Registrar of the University of Guyana.
The two tied the knot in 1979 and will in a matter of months celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary.
It wasn’t long after their nuptials that Vincent “jetted-off” to the Soviet Union to further his studies. This served as an advantage to the academically-inclined Holly as she was preparing for the finals of her nursing examination, which she completed with “flying colours.” She would remain in the local health sector for about two years offering her acquired expertise.
But since she was overwhelmed with the desire to take her learning to another level, Holly was soon making plans to further her nursing studies. She opted to do so in the Soviet Union in order to be close to her husband. Her academic performance in nursing was so astounding that the Soviet Government recommended that she undertake training in medicine instead.
By 1988 she was back home qualified as a General Medical Officer attached to the Georgetown Public Hospital and was able to utilise her knowledge in a number of departments. Before long she was considering a specialist field and initially directed much focus to the area of ophthalmology. She commenced training in this regard, but soon became apathetic.
“I didn’t like the idea of persons losing their sight and being responsible for that,” Dr Alexander reflected.
She later moved to the Medical Department where she trained extensively in gastroenterology. However, in 1991 she was asked to take up the reins of the Dermatology Clinic, situated within the Palms Geriatric Home compound, where she remained until she retired two years ago.
Venturing into the field of Dermatology was rather intriguing to Dr Alexander who disclosed, “I liked dermatology.” Interesting to note is the fact that she developed a passion for a field which one of her professors in the Soviet Union had long ago envisaged her mastering.
“I remember him telling me ‘I will make you a Dermatologist’. It is something I really developed a love for and so when the opening came for me to go to the Clinic, I grasped at it,” she recounted.
However, although equipped and ready to tackle all cases of dermatology, Dr Alexander found that the Clinic had more of a focus on Leprology.
“There was leprosy right there open to me,” said Dr Alexander, who was able to gain a great deal of training from the former Head of the Dermatology Clinic, Dr Ruth Benjamin-Huntley. She also benefited from training from an overseas Leprologist.
Added to this, Dr Alexander, who currently holds Master’s Degrees in Public Management and Education from the University of the West Indies, spent a year undergoing training in Ethiopia in a Leprosy colony surrounded by close to 4,000 patients, after which she returned to Guyana as a qualified Leprologist.
According to Dr Alexander, while Dermatology deals with the treatment of diseases affecting the skin, nails and hair, Leprology extends to nerve damage and muscle weaknesses that can advance considerably without treatment.
But instead of merely seeing patients at the Brickdam, Georgetown clinic, Dr Alexander, along with a team of nurses, was also required to take to the fields to reach her patients. She remembers doing at least 14 clinics across six Regions of the country every month and there were other outreach clinics in the far-flung areas too.
“We travelled out as a team each month with medication. For instance, we would go to the Essequibo Coast and do nine clinics in a week; or we might go up to Bartica and just do clinics as we went along,” Dr Alexander recalled.
And according to her, she has seen just about every possible case of dermatology.
“If you go to Berbice for sure you can see psoriasis, you’re likely to see the ringworms and the scabies; when you go to Clinic in Parika you can surely see a lot of acne…I usually say people in Parika just love their skin; they would come for the littlest things to make sure that it is treated,” mused Dr Alexander.
And during visits to Linden, she saw “a whole lot of sandworm, ringworm and that kind of thing. So when we go out we knew what to expect, even contact dermatitis resulting from allergic reactions from soaps and soap powders.”
Although doing clinics all across the country would for some be a tedious task, Dr Alexander insisted that it was enjoyable. “It was not sitting behind a desk, which I don’t particularly like; it was getting out there and going to where the people are. We would go into the mines in Linden to find patients if we had to, and coming out from there in the nights was not unusual.”
She also had a particular fondness for working with patients at the Leprosarium at Mahaica on the East Coast of Demerara, and according to her “you are able to see their gratitude…you know they are feeling better and they are able to look at life differently.”
And since leprosy has been a major focus of the Dermatology Clinic, Dr Alexander disclosed that keen efforts were always made to ensure that the leprosy patients were treated properly.
“Our role at the Dermatology Clinic was to make sure that we find all the leprosy patients as we do our clinics…,” she noted. Once found, patients are furnished with treatment free of cost, since the local Leprosy Programme is sponsored by the Netherlands Leprosy Association.
But attending to patients hasn’t been her only focus. You see, not only has Dr Alexander been able to share her wide knowledge with colleagues and students at the University of Guyana, but she has even facilitated sensitisation programmes in schools.
It was her versatility that gave her the added drive to take up the full-time role of Regional Health Officer in Region Three for a number of years.
Despite all of her professional commitments over the years, she was able to juggle being a wife even as she mothered several children, including her two girls, Towanna and Tatum. She has also for a number of years served with the D’Urban Park Lions Club.
Dr Alexander attends the Tucville Assembly of God Church, and spares some time to do a dermatology clinic there every second Thursday of each month.
In fact she has a fervent passion for volunteerism; hence she has embraced the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, Guyana, offering her knowledge by teaching first aid classes.
“Sometimes my days used to be chaos…but I managed; I think that I was able to do all of my tasks quite well.”
Even though she has retired from the public health sector, her days continue to be rather busy which includes her fostering a nine-year-old and seeing other family members off to work daily.
In summing up her years in working environments, which continues mainly as a consultant, Dr Alexander said, “I have that feeling of satisfaction; I am satisfied because I was able to help. You go into medicine because you want to see people get better and in this field you can see that.”
She disclosed that working with patients over the years has allowed her to become close with so many people that it would be remiss of her “to not stay in the game…I still see some patients pro bono; because of my love for this field I just can’t see it go down”.
Today this publication is duly recognising Dr Alexander as a ‘Special Person’ for being a health care worker who has helped, and continues to help, make a significant difference in this beautiful land of ours.
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