“Do the best you can by getting to know the subject area. If you are knowledgeable in that area, you will do your best.”
By Sharmain Grainger
The fight against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has for years been, and continues to be, an arduous
one for countries across the globe, Guyana being no exception. And these efforts have certainly not been in vain, as there is substantial evidence to support the notion that effective control of the spread of this dreaded disease is well within reach.
While there have been many stalwarts within the local health sector who have been doing their part in the fervent fight, there is one who has been outstanding enough to be recognised, having worked in this arena even when there was little to no hope for patients who contracted the disease.
That noteworthy individual is the current Director of Communicable Diseases within the Ministry of Health, Dr Morris Edwards, who has for more than two decades passionately offered his services to the field of health care.
The well-respected Central Assemblies of God Elder was born in the ancient county of Berbice on January 15, 1961, and spent six years of his young life in that section of the country as his parents – Egbert and Edna Edwards – migrated to Linden, with the Bauxite industry allowing for massive employment opportunities. In the mining town, his father became a millwright mechanic and his homemaker mother was soon able to work her way up to becoming a chef at the historic Watooka House.
A PLACE AT QUEEN’S COLLEGE
As the third of six children born to his parents, young Morris undertook his primary education in Wismar, Linden, where he performed well enough to earn a free place at Queen’s College to pursue his secondary level education. His stint at the prestigious Georgetown-based institution would span the period from 1972 to 1980.
And his time there was certainly not hidden ‘under a bushel’ as he was able to excel in every area he ventured, from academics to athletics. He described his secondary school days as “exciting times”, recounting that he was an avid sports personality which translated to him being the holder of a number of records.
He is particularly remembered for his track and field exploits ranging from the 100 metres dash to the 1,500 meters middle distance run.
“I think I had the record for the 800 metres for quite some time and I was being told recently by a colleague that during the last (QC) reunion there was a debate about who had the record,” he divulged with an almost sheepish grin.
Although he is immersed in things of a medical nature these days, he recalls not only being involved in track and field, but just about every game offered at the school including football, hockey, table tennis and cricket. And he was even good enough to represent at the levels of House and School.
According to Dr Edwards engaging in sports was only a pastime for him as his primary focus was always on his academics, which he certainly did not fail to excel at too.
“My focus was on my academics but I liked sports too; I didn’t get into other areas like debating and those types of things because I was more of an outdoors type of person,” he said, as he recollected that the principle that QC embraced even back then was to ensure that students became well-rounded individuals.
Academically, he opted for the Science stream. “Since I was pretty young I always wanted to
become a doctor but I also did some Arts subjects.” He also enjoyed foreign languages, both French and Spanish, and also did well in Geography, Literature, Mathematics and English. He was able to tackle nine subjects at a single sitting which at the time was somewhat significant.
But according to him, “that is chicken feed to what is happening now when you hear people are having 20 subjects. Good heavens! How do they function? I feel for those children…I was able to get involved in sports and had time to do nine subjects and had fun doing it.”
MUCH VALUED SUPPORT AND DISCIPLINE
After completing secondary school, Edwards was in pursuit of a scholarship, as his parents’ income was not sufficient to cater to him furthering his studies in Medicine. Supporting in this noble quest was a staunch community activist by the name of Aubrey Norton (former Member of Parliament) who from all indications was on a mission to see youths out of Linden truly excel. Efforts were made for Edwards to gain a place at a Russian University, as the University of Guyana’s medical programme was not yet fully established, but that however fell through. He eventually applied to the Public Service Ministry where he was granted a scholarship to study in Iraq.
But before heading to the Middle Eastern country, he was required to undertake a one-year
(1980-1981) National Service stint. This saw him being exposed to two months of basic training at the Papaya Centre in Region One before joining the Education Corps of the Guyana Defence Force at Camp Ayanganna.
“Being a part of National Service worked well for me. It exposed one to a different culture because as you know the military has a different outlook to civilians…they felt that civilians were indisciplined and therefore needed to have some discipline.”
But even as a young man he was not opposed to this level of training which also entailed a rigorous exercise regimen, including a six-mile run each morning which was no challenge for him to adapt to. He was also very accepting of the team spirit influence that the experience gave him.
However, his only concern was the fact that trainees were required to follow orders without asking questions. “I found that very intriguing because being an old QC boy you are taught to ask questions; you don’t just accept things at face value.”
By 1982 he was on his way to Iraq to commence his studies in Medicine. Two colleagues who had preceded him had spoken quite well of the programme there, even informing him that the programme was offered in English as opposed to the offerings in Cuba and the Soviet bloc where Medicine was offered in those national languages.
Nevertheless, his first year in Iraq saw him studying Arabic which he admits was not an easy undertaking. In fact the language is listed among the top three difficult languages to learn.
It was however necessary for him to learn in order to be able to communicate effectively with the nationals there. The learning process was one that helped him to reminisce on his days of learning French and Spanish at QC; he understandably was able to master Arabic, as he did most subjects.
At the time of his studies, Iraq was at war with neighbouring Iran. As a result there were some restrictions and hardships that the country faced. But according to a blushing Dr Edwards, “the experience at National Service stood me in good stead. I was able to discipline myself and understood that I was there to study Medicine and then return to my homeland.”
He briefly recalled culture and race-related challenges which forced him to be very wary of the persons he associated with. For instance, he recalled that because the country embraced a strict Muslim belief “having female friends there meant that one had to be extremely careful, as the society had a tendency to misconstrue things, thereby posing a danger for your female friends…I stayed clear of those kinds of things,” said Dr Edwards who also noted that entertainment was also very limited.
He nevertheless, was able to learn a great deal about the rich history of the country and was even able to set eyes on interesting archaeological finds. He remembers being able to visit the excavation of Babylon, which he regards as a prized and very memorable experience.
RETURN TO THE HOMELAND
Having completed his studies and internship in Iraq, Dr Edwards returned to Guyana in 1989, taking a place at the Georgetown Hospital.
And it was soon after his arrival too that he tied the knot with his long-time sweetheart, Yonette Cummings, who currently holds the position of Court of Appeal Judge. Their lone offspring, Yana-Marisa, topped the country at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) Examination in 2008. She is currently following in her father’s footsteps, pursuing Medicine at the University of the West Indies.
According to Dr Edwards, upon his return to Guyana he had planned on eventually becoming a surgeon and was therefore rotated in such areas. But according to him, at that time there was an undeniable tension between doctors in the public sector and those in the private sector.
A Guyana Medical Association was in place at that time and he recalls that young doctors saw that body as one that sought to dictate how they operated. This was in light of the fact that they were governed by a policy that didn’t support them engaging in private practice until five years post-graduation.
“The way we saw it is that you come back as a young doctor on a Government scholarship and you are bonded for five years and that keeps you constrained to only working in the public sector, whereas if you didn’t have a Government scholarship you could come straight back and go into private practice. We saw this as trying to control the guys in the public sector so as to limit the market in the private sector,” recalled Dr Edwards.
Even as a young doctor he was able to observe that there were many doctors in the very private sector who didn’t practice medicine with a civic responsibility. What he saw instead was more of a commercialised state of affairs.
He would eventually find out that a number of doctors who had trained a few years ahead of him were very concerned about their medical welfare, a cause that the young Dr Edwards readily took on. That therefore meant to some of his seniors that he was a radical.
“When I came back I saw what was happening and I recognised that the doctors in the public sector were more than the doctors in the private sector and we didn’t have to allow these folks to dictate our lives; they didn’t even have the interest of the public at heart,” recounted Dr Edwards who disclosed that he was only to ready to support the establishment of a Junior Doctors’ Association.
The intent was to not only improve the working conditions and salaries of the doctors in the public sector, but also to generally improve the practice by ensuring that there was a policy for sequential elevation.
It was in fact his efforts to fight for the rights of doctors that resulted in punitive measures being taken against him. He is convinced that his attempts to “buck the system” resulted in him being sent to the Charity Hospital in Region Two to take up a position there.
HEADING THE GUM CLINIC
But little did he know that he was well on his way to a whole new dimension of his career.
Because of unkempt accommodations at Charity, Dr Edwards was forced to return to Georgetown and was soon after asked to assume headship of the Genitourinary Medicine (GUM) Clinic at the Georgetown Hospital, a task no doctor wanted back then.
The Clinic was, and still is, one that dealt mainly with Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). At the time of his placement, HIV was just becoming a challenge to the health sector.
“I started managing that Clinic when everything you could think about HIV/AIDS was rampant; there was stigma and discrimination and there was fear. Nobody wanted to manage people with HIV. In fact people didn’t even want to come to the Clinic,” he recalled.
He remembers losing patients with promising futures such as an athletically-inclined schoolmate; a young woman in the midst of her studies at the University of Guyana, and another who contracted the disease from her first sexual encounter.
“As a physician you are trained to diagnose and treat, but with HIV you had nothing available to treat persons. Seeing young persons looking to you for answers and you really don’t have much answers to give them…those things can take a psychological toll on you,” related Dr Edwards who noted that he oftentimes had to cater to these patients alone.
As part of measures to improve the fight against the virus, in October 1991 Dr Edwards left for the Caribbean Epidemiological Centre (CAREC) in Trinidad to undertake a six weeks attachment to see how they managed cases of HIV and other STIs.
It was during this very time though that he missed what should have been one of the greatest experiences of his life – the birth of his daughter. Nevertheless, he remained focus on the task handed to him and retained his position at the GUM clinic. In 1999, he decided to leave the clinic to head to England to purse his Master’s in Medicine (Sexually Transmitted Infections/HIV).
But before leaving he would engage in one of the most eye-opening projects that would really serve to sensitise the public that STIs simply didn’t mean HIV alone, but rather there are others that are equally impacting to one’s health if not more.
The project would take on the form of a documentary which Dr Edwards was able to do in collaboration with a visiting producer. The end product was arguably the first documentary produced in Guyana, by Guyanese, about STIs that had the potential of even predisposing persons to the very dreaded HIV.
“We got the permission of patients and we did this graphic video of common sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis and gonorrhoea.” Dr Edwards said he was particularly happy to have accomplished this achievement. He was also able to dabble in some research work in this regard.
Aside from educating the local public as the documentary was aired on national television, it would also be of immense help to Dr Edwards during his studies in England, so much so that he was able to share his findings with some of his colleagues.
NEW ERA FOR HEALTH CARE
Returning to Guyana with his Master’s degree in August 2000 was definitely a big deal. Not only was he then charged with managing the National AIDS Programme, but the then Minister of Health, Dr Henry Jeffrey, challenged him to make a way for Guyana’s HIV infected patients to have access to the still very high-priced antiretroviral.
The task was indeed tall, as Guyana could ill-afford to pay the annual US$10,000 per patient.
It was around this time that the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP) had negotiated at a World AIDS Conference for HIV drugs to be lowered to at least US$2,000, an amount that was yet too steep for a Highly Indebted Poor Country like Guyana. At the time there were about 3,000 persons of the population living with the virus.
But moves were soon being made for cheaper antiretroviral drugs to be available to local patients.
“I advised the Minister, I did the concept paper, and that is how we started the treatment programme,” Dr Edwards intimated, as he disclosed how the annual cost of treatment per patient would drop to US$596 annually.
“This was a Highly Indebted Poor Country starting a treating programme with Government resources,” recalled Dr Edwards with pride as he informed that simultaneously another laudable pilot programme was being introduced – the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT).
The latter programme was one geared at preventing the transmission of HIV from infected mothers to their children.
Satisfied that he had done his part for the local public health sector, in 2005 Dr Edwards decided to take up an appointment at PANCAP, responsible for a Global Fund Project, where he was able to take his HIV-fighting expertise to a more regional scale. Through PANCAP he was able to work towards helping countries in the Region develop a regional approach to managing HIV by trying to build capacity so that the Region itself could respond in a coordinated fashion to the threat of HIV/AIDS.
While at PANCAP he was instrumental in taking not only the Global Fund Project to its successful completion, but also a World Bank Project on HIV and AIDS, after which he moved to the Strategy and Resources Division of PANCAP where he helped to develop the existing Regional Project of PANCAP.
Dr Edwards has since parted ways with PANCAP in order to pursue his doctorate in Public Health, an undertaking that requires that he does field placements. But although he could have done so just about anywhere in the world given his expertise, he decided to return to the Ministry of Health where he currently holds the position of Communicable Diseases Director.
“I came back here to see what input I can make; to share experiences and mentor people,” said Dr Edwards of his return to the Health Ministry, which in fact sees him having input in a number of areas ranging from HIV to Vector Control.
He assertively pointed out that regardless of what area an individual is involved, he or she should always be prepared to “do the best you can by getting to know the subject area. If you are knowledgeable in that area, you will do your best”.
Dr Edwards is currently preparing to share his years of knowledge with students of the University of Guyana’s Masters in Public Health Programme.
His continued dedication to health care and his willingness to share his knowledge is certainly a trait that qualifies Dr Morris Edwards for recognition as a “Special Person.”
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