Generations of Barbadian children and parents have grown up with paediatrician, Professor Margaret Anne St John.
Even after more than four decades of treating runny noses, fevers, bruises, rashes and the aches and pains of little ones, “Ma”, though retired, is still on call.
“Sometimes I have patients that are from generations come to my office—the great grandmother, the grandmother, the mother and the child,” she chuckles.
That’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Whether she is holding a stethoscope to the chest of a toddler or delivering a stern message before an adult audience for decisive action to reduce childhood obesity, Professor St John will forever be among Barbados’ leading advocates for children.
“I have an affinity for young children. I like to work with them and to get the best out of them,” she says.
It’s that passion that has built a legacy of firsts. Most notable for the no-nonsense medical professional is the island’s renowned achievement of the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
“I had to care for all the children who had been diagnosed with HIV in the public sector. Our first case was diagnosed in 1984 and we had a very awful experience in successive years. We had about 70 per cent of the children being diagnosed with HIV through mother-to-child transmission. So we got up to 99 per cent tested in pregnancy. We were able to reduce our prevalence from 38 per cent down to less than two per cent and it has been sustained.”
Achievements like these are nothing unusual for Professor St John.
The United Kingdom-born physician, who is Bajan to the bone, was almost predestined for the medical profession.
“We have a family history of many doctors. We have five or six physicians in the UK—my cousins and my uncles—and they are inspirational to me…so that was easy; and I like children, and I was good at science in school.”
Not only did she excel at science, but could have easily become a noted athlete.
“I ran with Freida Nicholls and some others. I was at the level where I represented Barbados at the Texaco Games, which then became the CARIFTA Games. I was selected to be a representative for the Olympics in 1972, but I was in medical school and in serious exams at the time, so it wasn’t even a choice.”
The proud Queen’s College alumna worked hard and gained a scholarship to the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus.
She set to work, and admitted that it was demanding. But she was determined “to do my best, to achieve the pinnacle”.
And she did.
Having graduated with an MBBS from the Faculty of Medicine, Mona Campus, University of the West Indies, Professor St John returned to Barbados and completed a residency in Paediatrics and a one-year Paediatric Ambulatory Fellowship at Kings County/Downstate Medical Centre, Brooklyn. This was followed by a year as a Senior Resident and Fellowship in Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the prestigious Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. She attained postgraduate qualifications of the American Board of Paediatrics, and Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.
Returning home, Professor St John worked her way up the ranks at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, leaving a trail of accolades.
She held the posts of Senior Registrar, Department of Paediatrics and Consultant. She served as Head, Department of Paediatrics, from 1993 to 2000, and was also appointed Associate Lecturer in Paediatrics, Faculty of Medical Sciences (Cave Hill Campus, UWI) from 1980 and Hon. Professor, Department of Child Health in 2010.
Humbled by her achievements, Dr St John says her life principle is always about giving back.
“I believe you should just give of your best to people. Maybe it was our school motto at Queen’s College—Fiat Lux (Carry the Light). I also believe that unto whom much is given, much is expected.”
And so, she continues to fiercely demand better for the nation’s children. These days, she has taken up the challenge of tackling the growing problem of childhood obesity as Director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
She is anxious to see healthier meals in schools and more physical activity for the nation’s children.
In fact, she says if she had to take charge of the island for just one day, the health of Barbadians would be issue number one.
“What I would like to change is the habits of folks. We have to move more and consume less to have an impact on the prevalence of non-communicable diseases. This would lead to more longevity and a better quality of life.”
This Independence, Professor St John is reminding Barbadians that they can make positive changes, one day at a time. While she acknowledges that the island is facing tough times, she is confident that hard work and the good-natured spirit of citizens can turn things around.
“I think that if we can pull together, it is not you, me or a specific person to do it, it is for all of us to pull together and do our best…giving back to the country to make life a better place for others who live here.”