Modern medicine in the making of the Vincentian nation –  The case of Dr A Cecil Cyrus
Dr Cecil Cyrus showing some of the exhibits at the Dr Cecil Cyrus Museum.
Tribute
April 14, 2023
Modern medicine in the making of the Vincentian nation – The case of Dr A Cecil Cyrus

by Dr Garrey
Michael Dennie

In July 1974, when I was barely fourteen years old, Dr Cyrus saved my life. And by then, he had already established himself as the greatest doctor in the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Unfortunately, about a month before I met Dr Cyrus, I stepped barefooted on a broken bottle in the playground at Rose Place and sustained a severe gash to the sole of my right foot. It bled profusely. But once it was properly bandaged by the nurses at the hospital’s Emergency Department and the bleeding stopped, I went home – blithely assuming that after a few days, I would be back on my feet.

The quick return to good health did not happen. Instead, I descended into a parent’s worst nightmare as I became terribly ill. I could not walk. My entire leg became swollen, and the skin became dried up and wrinkled as an old man’s leg. I could barely eat. Facing this calamitous collapse in my health, my mother, placed me on her back and carried me to several doctors, none of whom either could or would offer relief to her son’s affliction.

Dr GarreyMichael Dennie

Until she met Dr Cyrus. He immediately had me hospitalized and placed me on a seven days’ medical regime of injections – probably tetanus, penicillin, or some combination thereof. Absent Dr Cyrus’s case notes, I do not know the precise infection I had contracted. But I do know this: without his medical intervention, I would have died.

In 1974, the Vincentian medical universe was fraught with great risk – especially for the poor. I had no capacity then to historicize Dr Cyrus’s place in the history of Vincentian medicine.

But nearly 50 years later I recognize Dr Cyrus as a medical revolutionary, our first trained surgeon who, according to the testimony of medical experts, had also become an expert in at least six medical fields.

In fact, in 1979, while teaching at the Girls High School (GHS) I had the distinct pleasure of teaching Rachel Cyrus, one of Dr Cyrus’s daughters. That moment offered me a glimpse, perhaps, of how histories intertwine in unexpected ways – the trajectory of my life had been forever altered by Dr Cyrus and at GHS, I had become one of his daughter’s teachers.

Yet nothing, perhaps, better illustrates the extraordinary historical significance of Dr Cyrus’s place in Vincentian medical history than the voice of Patient X. In May 1970, Patient X found herself in excruciating pain. Radiating from her stomach, over several hours the pain got worse. Seeking medical relief, she took herself to a private medical clinic. There, the doctor advised her that she needed emergency medical treatment at Kingstown Colonial Hospital.

Heeding the advice of the private doctor, she rushed herself to the hospital. There, they made a crucial decision: they issued a call to Dr Cecil Cyrus, the surgeon on call. Dr Cyrus would then perform life- saving surgery on this young lady which 50 years later, she recalled in the finest of details. She was, in fact, suffering from an ectopic pregnancy, a condition where the fertilized egg lodges itself outside of the uterine chamber. In this instance, the fertilized egg had embedded itself within her fallopian tubes. Without medical intervention afflicted women would indeed experience the excruciating pain of Patient X. Worse, left unattended, the fetus would burst the fallopian tube leading to internal bleeding, destroyed fallopian tubes, and even death. Hence, after her successful surgery, whenever the subject of Dr Cyrus was brought to her attention, she would say, “After God, is Dr Cyrus.”

The precise details of Patient X’s memories are of course subject to correction. And Dr Cyrus’s own notes of this surgery would provide invaluable information on this case. But the essence of Patient X’s story is unimpeachable: in a moment when she was at extraordinary risk, Dr Cyrus saved her life. And she is neither the first nor the last patient who would genuflect to the supreme surgical expertise and medical compassion Dr Cyrus brought to his work as a Vincentian doctor. Her story, however, captures the fundamental truth of Dr Cyrus’s medical career: he revolutionized Vincentian medical culture.

Notwithstanding Patient X’s great misfortune in being ill, she was certainly lucky in one single respect: Dr Cyrus was the surgeon on call. For by 1970, Dr Cyrus was in his sixth year working at the Colonial Hospital. He had returned to St Vincent in January 1964 to offer his medical skills to Vincentians. By then he had spent more than a decade abroad in the world’s most acclaimed medical schools acquiring the expertise and authority borne out of the undisputed medical successes that modern medicine had achieved as the bringer of healing to the afflicted. Patient X, and all Vincentians, were now the beneficiaries of the services of a world class surgeon working in the medical backwaters of the colonial Caribbean.

Interrogating the place of Dr Cyrus within Vincentian medical history necessitates clarity on the state of St Vincent’s medical universe before 1964. Broadly speaking, this was little changed since the days of slavery where the medical personnel and services available were simply insufficient to meet the needs of the population. Disease and death stalked the land. And nowhere was the colonial disregard for Vincentian lives made more manifest than in the Colonial Hospital itself. For in this place of last resort against medical calamities, St Vincent lacked the single most potent weapon that could tip the balance in the struggle between life and death: a trained surgeon.

Dr Cecil Cyrus was the first trained surgeon in the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines to work at the Colonial Hospital. Undoubtedly, some of the untrained surgeons who worked at the hospital would have had some medical successes. But that very lack of expertise also meant that many Vincentians also died preventable deaths. Indeed, Patient X recalled that her own surgery had complications which demanded Dr. Cyrus’ considerable expertise to prevent a catastrophic outcome.

In fact, Dr Cyrus’s status as the first trained surgeon in St Vincent had a far broader impact than Dr Cyrus himself might have imagined. For in colonial St Vincent, he was also a native born black Vincentian surgeon. His presence therefore unsettled the older racist idea that black people lacked the intellectual capacity to master modern science. And in a colony where the political and medical hierarchies were white, the colonial hierarchies resisted conferring to Dr Cyrus the power and status that befitted a surgeon of his expertise, and which they would reflexively have accorded to his white or English colleagues. Rather, in 1964, they chose to create a new bureaucratic regime where our only trained surgeon was in fact subordinate to those without his training or expertise.

None of these handicaps, however, could overcome the sheer genius of Dr Cyrus. Fundamentally, he was a medical nationalist motivated by the desire to change the trajectory of Vincentian medical history from the crippling prejudices of its colonialist past to a broader conception of medicine in service of the public good.

In reading Dr Cyrus’s voluminous scholarship, one becomes acutely aware of how in his philosophy, practice, and ethic of care, he destabilized colonial medical hierarchies, revolutionized the delivery of care, and indigenized Caribbean medicine. To achieve these ends, he created medical tools specific to the challenge of practicing medicine in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

He democratized Vincentian medical care by broadening access to the poor and underprivileged and saving the lives of poor boys like me. He professionalized the mechanisms and processes through which doctors, nurses, and hospital staff could deliver the most effective medical care to the afflicted. He democratized the nursing profession, opening its door to young women of merit who were previously excluded from its ranks. And through his publications and his construction of a medical museum, he produced an atlas of Vincentian medical knowledge which has received wide acclaim around the Caribbean and beyond. In essence, Dr Cyrus ripped up the colonial foundations of Vincentian medical culture by attaching value to the lives of Vincentians. In doing so, he became a national figure, our first medical hero, and a towering pioneering figure in the Vincentian medical landscape.

One more thing: Patient X gave birth to the woman who is now my wife. Thus, it can be said that Dr Cyrus saved my life, and he gave me a wife.