As a consultant at Northwick Park Hospital in London, St John native Dr Don Burgess has definitely been on the frontline of COVID-19 as the hospital found itself at the epicentre of the pandemic in the UK.
At one point, Northwick Park had more coronavirus cases than any other in England, at an average of 120 daily. “There were times we had ten or 12 patients being treated in ambulances outside, waiting for a bed to become available,” he said.
Long before becoming a senior medic, Burgess enjoyed growing up in Wilson Hill, St. John with a brother and two sisters “at a brilliant time”. Life was about attending Mount Tabor Primary School, church on Sundays and helping with the animals and kitchen garden. Coming from a home where his mother Inez insisted “you could become anything you want,” he went on to Harrison College and later pursued a medical degree at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.
His adventurous spirit – coupled with the scarcity of jobs in Barbados after he completed his studies – made the motorsports enthusiast migrate to Jamaica to work as a surgeon. “I was never someone who was afraid to live different places or do different things,” he confessed. So several years later he decided to broaden his horizons and train in breast reconstruction in England.
Arriving in 2003 and understanding the “nightmare” associated with achieving that, he simply squashed those plans and applied for a job in orthopaedics. Considered over-qualified for that role, he was offered another as Emergency Medicine Registrar. He trained further, became a consultant and has remained with the same National Health Service Trust (NHS) for the past 16 years.
Originally an NHS Trust that dealt primarily with trauma cases, that dwindled over the years pandemic aside, Burgess now spends much of his time “strategizing and dealing with diseases of affluence (non-communicable diseases)”.
Even though “medicine is interesting and I will never stop doing it,” it has never replaced Burgess’ love for the land. “Growing up as a country boy, going outside and picking things fresh wasn’t unusual.”
As a teenager, he saw nearby Wakefield and Claybury Plantations being run successfully and “understood the business side of it”. Now, he and a few others have conducted research and hope to bring a high-level futuristic agricultural product to Barbados, combining agro-processing, energy production, tourism, entertainment and food production. The challenge has been acquiring funding to get it up and running. He is certain that “the state-of-the-art modern enterprise could employ a couple hundred people”.
The father of three still considers Wilson Hill as “my permanent address even though I haven’t lived there for 30 years,” because that was where he learnt humility and gained a strong sense of community.
“I had many sets of parents and mentors. So I knew from early that you don’t behave in a way that would embarrass your parents.” Besides his biological ones, Geoffrey and Monica Skinner were his second parents.
Former principal of Mount Tabor Sylvia Goodridge class teacher Grace Devonish and Harrison College teacher Monica Procope all had a “massive influence” on his life, he reminisced. Devonish influenced his love for music, costumes and carnivals through involving the students in Kiddies Kadooment.
Becoming a doctor was a childhood dream based on a desire “to help fix people”. Fast forward 40-plus years and he is now at the heart of a pandemic, at a medical facility which could easily have become overburdened. What prevented that was “having good plans and good people in place and a very high level of response”.
He continued: “Because of that, we were able to provide guidance to other hospitals. A patient could come through the door and be really sick and be ready for intubation in five minutes. Everybody knows their role – they don’t talk, they do.
“I work as part of a team and teamwork depends on every member doing their part; if the cleaners don’t do their work, we can’t function properly. If the anaesthesiologist and the nurses don’t do their work we can’t function.
“We have one of the newest and best-designed emergency rooms in Europe,” and Burgess said he would love the opportunity to show the Ministry of Health officials in Barbados.
The hospital also suffered “the lowest sickness rate among medical staff in London,” but even with all that, they lost many patients to coronavirus. “My team worked fantastically and yet it was horrendous to have a massive number of people dying. Sometimes you look at them and you know they’re going to die – and their relatives can’t even be with them,” Burgess lamented. “I lost a very good friend – a German surgeon,” the 52-year-old added.
Another spinoff was that at the peak of the influx of patients, “some of my junior colleagues became emotionally overwhelmed and panicked.” That prompted the start of wellness sessions every afternoon, where staff could talk freely “and get things off their chest.”
The doctor’s philosophy is that you should “learn something from everyone you meet.” He credits his brother Basil, who died many years ago, with teaching him much about life and valuing friendships. His go-getter attitude came from his mother, while his best memories of his father McGregor are of a man who understood the usefulness of doing things with your hands. “That’s why I chose surgery, initially; it is just working with tools.”
Burgess is married to Kathryn and away from work, he enjoys gardening, do-it-yourself projects, travelling and watching cricket. ( Sandra Downes in London)