On any given day, Dr Chaynie Williams will remove a potentially deadly bullet, suture a gaping wound, reset a broken bone, bandage an accident victim, perform the Heimlich manoeuvre, diagnose ailments of all kinds, count beds and even pat the shoulder of a stressed out nurse. Williams is an emergency physician at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) and one of the directors at the Sandy Crest Medical Centre.
She holds the distinction of being the first female head of the Accident & Emergency Department at the island’s main hospital.
The diminutive wife and mother of two has been on the frontline of the chaos of an emergency room for some 23 years, and is still energized by the unpredictability. Even against the backdrop of her intense, round-the-clock duties, she says “I was always one that like to help people.” Surprisingly, the calm, humble, but firm physician did not originally set out to be a doctor. Dentistry fascinated her more, but circumstances led a young, bright Chaynie to medicine.
“I got an Exhibition and applied to medical school. I went on to do my degree at Mona [Campus of the University of the West Indies] and I did my undergraduate medical degree – most of it there –, came back to Barbados to do the clinical years and then finished in 1995.”
With a smile, she fondly remembers those hard days and long nights of studying that she got through with the support of her family and friends. “Medicine isn’t easy, it is a lot of work but I had friends from high school—we went together and bonded as a tightknit unit. It was lot of work but we went there to do something, not just to enjoy university life.”
As expected, Chaynie excelled and got down to the business of developing her career when she sort of fell into emergency medicine. “As an intern, I enjoyed all the rotations that I would have done. I couldn’t commit to anything in particular but I gravitated more to surgical specialties. I recognized that I like most of everything and I was good at some things that I didn’t like, so emergency medicine was the perfect choice because you see all different areas of medicine and you get to have some level of mastery in each of them.”
In her early days, Chaynie remembers stepping into a man’s world. “A few of my colleagues, females from my class, were doing emergency medicine post-grad but the majority of our senior colleagues were male,” she said, although admitting that it was neither intimidating nor challenging since they worked as team. What was notably different was how males and females responded on the job.
“Men are more black and white; with women, there are shades of grey. I try to see everyone’s point of view. I am into more coaching and nurturing to get the job done.” Chaynie’s tenacity, fast growth and obvious skill led to her promotion to Head of the Accident & Emergency Department—a move she didn’t recognize as an accomplishment until almost six years into her eight-year tenure.
“Initially, I just saw it as part of the progression of being an emergency physician. When you graduate you expect some level of responsibility and I gravitated towards the administrative side. The emergency department has over 100 staff members of all different areas.
I recognize that it was a big responsibility but I didn’t see it as an issue. The fact that I was female didn’t matter; I just took the bull by the horns. It was only on reflection I recognized you have been doing this for five years plus and you are the first female.” It was a learning experience for the doc. She enjoyed the respect of her colleagues but admitted there were also challenges.
“There were many times when I think I had to be more extreme and get on more ‘er’ – I had to be angrier or stronger or whatever in order to get things done – because of the level of responsibility that I see myself having to the juniors, and then being a female and shorter than most of my male colleagues—they were all close to six feet. I recognized that I had to say the same thing twice or in triplicate in order for persons to hear me the first time and I didn’t like that.
“However, I found that over time, yes, I had to make my mark and then persons recognized that I am serious about what I do. I am professional about what I do and I have earned some level of respect I would like to think.” Today she is proud that more women have entered the medical profession. In fact, she says, “women rule.”
“In medicine, I think we are doing quite well. There are a lot of senior female colleagues—Dame Selman Jackman, Professor Anne St John. There are lots of women that have cleared the way for my generation and generations to come and I think that we are doing quite well when we compare ourselves to other professions in Barbados. We are fortunate that we don’t have to complain about wage inequality like we are seeing the complaints in North America at this time.
Here, once you work for it, you will get just reward.” Like many women, Chaynie performs a daily balancing act of being a wife and mother of two teenagers. She’s thankful the early chaotic days are pretty much over, crediting her endurance to a supportive husband and family. “I used to miss not being able to bond and do certain activities with them [children]. Sometimes you go to the other extreme of trying to be included in everything and then you are burnt out. I had to try to come to terms with it. The fortunate thing is that I have a very good family structure. I come from a big family; my husband also, I don’t think I could have made it doing it by myself.”
This International Women’s Day, Chaynie will most likely be on the job providing care to those who need it. She says whatever women are doing on that day she wants them to “recognize they have a contribution to make to society and their roles are very important. Respect yourselves and be honest with persons around you.”