Jamaican Achievers Hailed

Allan Appel Photo“The most frequent [racial] assumption is that I’m from patient transport services, there to pick them up. But it doesn’t bother me. I just clarify: I’m your doctor.”

Actually, the petite black woman with big intense eyes is not only their doctor, but their surgeon. Their vascular surgeon.

That can-do attitude of Hillary Brown, a vascular surgeon at Yale-New Haven Hospital, was on display in a panel discussion celebrating the upcoming Aug. 6 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence through the stories of high-achieving Jamaican-born New Haveners.

As part of her 21st Century Conversation series of the OneWorld Progressive Institute,, broadcast journalist N’Zinga Shani, herself Jamaican-born, convened Brown; Kisha Mitchell, a professor of pathology at Yale; Ena Williams, the director of operating room nursing at Yale; and Richard Brooks, a Yale Law School professor to tape an episode of her public-access TV show.

She asked them what there is in the history, family structure, or water of Jamaica to account for the many high academic achievers and entrepreneurs.

The panelists all cited an excellent tradition of grammar schools, with discipline, that the British instituted immediately after the end of slavery in the 1830s.

But the major factor cited was strong parental expectations. “Lawyer, doctor, nurse, or teacher, those were the options,” said Williams, who came to Bridgeport 22 years ago. As the second of 11 children, the first girl, and the “mini-mother,” she said she grew up with “a tremendous responsibility.” Her father told her: “However you go, your siblings will follow.”

“A wall in front of you is not a reason to sit down. It’s a reason to climb,” said Brooks, who grew up in Norwalk, holds degrees from Berkeley and the University of Chicago, and is currently the Leighton Homer Surbeck professor of law at Yale.

He recalled encountering an instance of prejudice when he was being denied entrance into the college-going track in high school despite all the right grades and achievements. His mother’s strong intervention made all the difference, he said.

None of the participants knew the number of Jamaicans living in New Haven except to put the number in the thousands. You don’t hear about people unless they get in trouble, Shani quipped. “We [Jamaicans] don’t have time to get into trouble.”

Mitchell, who heads Yale’s pathology service with expertise in gastrointestinal and liver pathology, estimated that that the population of Jamaica at 2.6 million, with 2.7 million Jamaicas living outside the country. She said tourism and remittances home are the biggest sources of revenue.

There are significant communities in Norwalk, Bridgeport, and Stamford. The West Indian Foundation, located in Hartford, estimates that 70,000 West Indians live in the metro Hartford area alone. (A call to them for estimates about Greater New Haven was not returned by press time.)

Shani’s program celebrating Jamaica and the the achievement particularly of its diaspora, will air on Aug. 5 on CTV. She said stations have expressed iinterest in rebroadcasting it in New York, Georgia, Arizona, and Florida.

Shani said she taped the program now because Brown, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, with advanced training at Yale, is returning to Jamaica at the end of June. She will become the first vascular surgeon on the island when she assumes her post at the Hospital at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.

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