MASTER MATRON

Jamaica’s
longest-serving hospital matron, or formally director of nursing services, happens to be a man — one of a kind in the popular north Caribbean land.

Devon Williams, described by his peers as one who works more and speaks less, has been the bedrock of Bellevue Hospital’s nursing care programme for a lengthy part of the 41 years that he has worked at the east Kingston-based facility for mental care, the only one of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean. Add a further three years of training at an institution under Bellevue’s management at the time, and his overall association would go up to 44 years.

As he prepares to inevitably ride off into the sunset of retirement towards the end of 2023, Williams sat with the Jamaica Observer for what has been described as his maiden media interview to reflect on a career that represents a mixed bag, but which he summed up as “most rewarding and satisfying”.

The long walk to nursing glory began in 1979 when his Annotto Bay, St Mary-born mother, who also worked at Bellevue as a psychiatric nursing aide, urged him to apply for a training programme at the then Bellevue School of Nursing. He got through as a part of Batch Five, and thereby ended his earlier dream of grooming students.

Now he heads a nursing staff of more than 350 that includes registered nurses, enrolled nurses, psychiatric nurses, nursing aides, and patient care assistants, who work on shifts, daily.

“To be honest, I really wanted to become a teacher and tried to get into Excelsior Community College, but they said that there was no space. So my mother told me of interviews being done for training at Bellevue. I did the interview and was successful.

“When I came to Bellevue I was scared as a rabbit, seeing those [mentally ill] men walking all over the place on the compound, I was just edgy and anticipating that something bad was going to happen.

“But during my training I started to get a feeling for the clients — when you sit and talk to them they become a part of you. It’s like when a man gets a gunshot wound and goes to KPH [Kingston Public Hospital] in a very bad condition and they work on him until he is better. It’s the same way a man comes to Bellevue — aggressive and uncomfortable — and you work on him until that man can sit and talk to you and you can send him home. It’s a good feeling,” stated Williams, a past student of Greenwich Primary and Haile Selassie Secondary School, now high. He became fully employed by Bellevue in 1982.

“When I go to my bed I can say to myself, comfortably, I have given to my country, I have given to the patients,” Williams continued. “There is no greater feeling than going to your bed and sleep comfortably. Many people can’t do that…they toss and turn and can’t sleep because they are under stress. I have no such issue,” he said.

“With my tenure here, I feel good. There have been mistakes by management in the earlier years, but the overall picture has been good,” Williams added.

Reflecting on his ride at Bellevue of over four decades, the father of two boys and two girls remembers clearly when the facility had two sides — east and west — and saw the virtual elimination of the west side by 1998 to facilitate the Manley Meadows housing development, and, gradually, the general improvements, medically, in its infrastructure, patient care, and staff relations.

“I remember clearly from the days of Dr [Freddie] Hickling, now deceased, who was SMO [senior medical officer] from the 1970s, starting a garden theatre called Madnificent Irations, which staged several plays towards the west side. It was alleged that he endorsed the smoking of ganja, and in those days ganja smoking was illegal and lobby groups which opposed him eventually got him out of Bellevue,” Williams remembered.

As the years progressed, the then matron had set her eyes on him, something he did not know, to take over from her, although there were other staff members with more experience than he. She encouraged him to get further training at The University of the West Indies, and he applied for entry, was approved, postponed the training for two years, but was again urged to get into it by his superior.

“I was a charge nurse at the time, the equivalent of a ward sister for females, and the matron saw something in me which I didn’t see,” he explained.

“I went to do the one-year certificate programme but ended up doing the degree programme as well and came away with first class honours. When I came back to Bellevue there was a fight as there were several older than me vying to take over, but none had a degree, so when the post became vacant, I went and did the interview and was successful. That was 2006.

“I remember those early days, the main treatment for patients was sodium amytal, and when the patient takes that drug it would knock him out and he would be down for two or three days. The patient would get a syrupy, sweet drink and after day three he would be a new man. They have stopped using that treatment now because they said it had some negative effects on patients, so we are now using more modernised types of treatment,” he stated.

Williams also witnessed the dietary department repaired, staff cafeteria developed, and the installation of an automated teller machine on the premises; however, training of nurses and patient care are standouts.

“In terms of nursing, we have been able to send quite a number of nurses on training programmes for bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and some to do their doctorates. I remember nurse Pusey-Murray now at UTech [University of Technology, Jamaica] she did her doctorate. We have had nurses coming in here as sanitation workers, one in particular going on to get his master’s degree from Northern Caribbean University.

“Patient care is more modern now. I remember when restraining patients years ago you have four or five persons using a white sheet and restraining the patients’ arms and legs. Nowadays you have a Pinel Restraint, bought from overseas, which comes with buckles and things like that, where you can do a four-point restraint or a two-point restraint. So that is better, in terms of the humanity.

“In terms of hygiene, Bellevue has come a far way. In the 1970s things were terrible. Patients would bathe very infrequently. Nowadays patients bathe once or twice per day. They get their soap, toothpaste, perfumes, hygiene packs,” Williams shared.

“There is now a no-nonsense policy about patient abuse, whether verbal or physical. Anybody who is found hitting a patient is likely to be dismissed — you don’t call a patient, ‘Hey boy, hey gal’. You address them as Mr Smith, Ms whatever. Patients have a level of freedom to make decisions. If it concerns mental health, then the physician makes that, but the patient can refuse to wipe the floor or refuse to make his bed because he has a right to do that. You can say, ‘Mr Smith, please go and make your bed,’ but if he doesn’t want to, you cannot force him. We have a Patients Services Department as well, so if it’s found that a patient has been abused, investigations are done and whatever the facts show, action is taken.

“Trust comes through consistent behaviour toward patients. They will reveal some of the things that are bothering them — the underpinnings affecting their lives. You can bring your training into play to assist that patient. Once the patient trusts you, you can be a therapeutic tool to the patient,” Williams stated.

As for his most fearful moment in what some describe as a highly volatile environment, he recalled an incident many years ago when a patient in the then Western C Ward grabbed him from behind in a tight hold, like a wrestler going after a championship belt. Shocked, momentarily, he managed to stave off potential harm as other staff intervened before the 10-count could get underway.

“I just felt the tight hug from behind. Usually, when patients attack, they hardly pick the person who is in charge, they normally attack staff at the lower level, but thankfully, I was not injured,” he reflected.

As he looks ahead to retirement, Williams, who said he feels like he can do 13 seconds over 100 metres, has programmed himself to take on other duties, like working part-time doing “sessions” in the health service, in light of the shortage of nurses, and training students of nursing. Heading overseas is also an option that he could explore, something he had planned to do in 1988, to Canada, but the devastation wreaked on Jamaica by Hurricane Gilbert poked him to change his mind.

The avid domino player and cricket lover, whose fledging progress in the latter sport was cut short by a bouncer that landed below his left eye, would love to see members of the nursing fraternity getting better compensation and for more young men to become involved in nursing again.

“When I started, about 40 per cent of my batchmates were male. That has changed now, and you have far less men involved in the profession. You might find from a batch of 30 now, only three men.

“Nurses over the years have been severely underpaid. When I came here I was getting $260 a month for my pay, and I remember going into 1990 I was getting just over $1,000 a month. In the late 1990s we started getting high increases so the salary would move to $13,000, then $26,000, but we were still underpaid. Nursing has developed consistently, so they are now able to get professionals to sit and assist them at the bargaining table.

“The salary is at least moving up to be closer to or on par with other professions in Jamaica, but more needs to be done,” he insisted.

As one who grew up in some tough sections of inner-city areas of the Corporate Area, like Rollington Town, Franklyn Town, Penwood Road, and McIntyre Villa, he has seen all kinds of violent action and the “bad man system”.

His grandmother, who owned land at Steele Lane and Craig Lane in the capital city’s west side, had property bought by the Government for a housing development, and the State agreed to give her a two-bedroom house on Payne Avenue as part of the deal.

One day, during an election campaign, Williams said she heard men on the roof saying, among other things, “Mada, is time fi you leave this place, you nuh,” then gave her a deadline. “She left the place to live in a rented house and soon somebody moved into her legal house,” Williams recalled.

Even with bad memories of the Payne Avenue area, Williams said that he would mentor or address students of his alma mater Haile Selassie High School on the positive things of life.

The head of nursing at Bellevue said he felt inclined to honour the work of CEO Suzette Buchanan, who, according to him, “seems to know the ins and outs of how to get things done.

“Bellevue has been through many travails, many CEOs, there was Mrs Miller, Mr David Dobson, Mrs McFarlane, Mr Graham, a whole heap of CEOs… they just passed through the place.

“Ms Buchanan is the most recent one. From day one she has shown her colours. I don’t know if it’s because I am getting older, but I just like her style. She doesn’t micromanage, she has allowed her senior managers to manage their departments effectively and allow for freedom of space.

“The staff in general has taken on to her. She walks the compound regularly. She knows what is happening everywhere, and if something happens to her now, the staff would go to the front gate and block it. Normally, they would say, ‘Away with the CEO, away with so and so, we don’t want those persons here,’ but this lady… her style has been really effective with the team members, and I am hoping that it will last as CEOs don’t normally stay here after the first three years of contract.”

As the clock ticks Williams said he would also describe his journey as one akin to making a chair or piece of furniture, and when finished “you say wow”.

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