Dame Selma Jackman reflecting on her career in her private office last week. (Picture by Christoff Griffith.)
SHE WAS A 15-year-old Christ Church Girls’ Foundation student when she witnessed a horrific accident while standing at a bus stop on her way to purchase a school bus ticket.
She knew the occupants of the ill-fated vehicle, one of whom died. On that day Selma Jackman vowed she would be a doctor.
She went on to forge a brilliant career as a surgeon and has shared her expertise as teacher and examiner of medical students.
For all she has done, today she is Dame Selma Jackman, Dame of St Andrew, an honour bestowed in this year’s National Independence Honours.
Last week, in the George Street/Belleville office where the retired former Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) surgeon now carries on a private practice, the soft-spoken Dame Selma expressed thanks to all who were responsible for her receiving the honour.
With characteristic humility, she also acknowledged the contribution of stalwarts of the medical profession such as Sir Errol Walrond, “a surgeon par excellence”, the late Dr Oscar Jordan and noted Vincentian surgeon Sir Cecil Cyrus, at whose feet she sat. All of them gave her guidance in the early years of her career.
But the question on many lips since the announcement has been “Who is Selma Jackman?” Dame Selma has her own question, “Why me?”
“I know that my colleagues wanted to say in some way that they appreciated the fact that I have been their teacher and helped them all through the years. But this particular honour, no I am not sure why (I received it).”
But who is she? “A very ordinary person,” said the soft-spoken Dame Selma when the question was posed by the SUNDAY SUN. “I am a very blessed person. I am five out of 12 children; I have been blessed with very good teachers . . . everything I have learnt, all the people I have learnt from, I have learnt because they were good examples.”
She also credited teachers at St Catherine’s Mixed School, Christ Church Girls’ Foundation School and Queen’s College where she received her sixth form education, with giving her the foundation for a satisfying career.
It is evident her success was based on a determination to make the best of the educational opportunities that presented themselves along the way.
Unlike those Sixth Form QC colleagues who waited to apply themselves to their “A” level studies only in the third year, Dame Selma decided to confine herself to two years of “A” Level studies and applied for a Government Exhibition after the second year.
She explained: “I am not one for repeating things. I applied and I got an exhibition, because there is no way I would have gone anywhere near anything called the university in those days. I couldn’t afford it.”
She is from a working class East Point, St Philip family – “a farming family” as she described it.
The devout Christian credits her “God-fearing parents” and “a trust and reliance on God” for her achievements in life. Her Christian life was fostered within a religious group with no name and no church building.
They meet in homes and in the old days when evangelists from the group pitched tents for their meetings, the public labelled them “the Tent Gathering”, though Dame Selma contended: “A name is not important. To me if you say you are a Christian then you need to live your life by the principles Christ established.”
With that belief she confessed: “I do not do much talking.”
As a doctor her training spanned the gamut of medical practice – paediatrics, obstetrics, and adult medicine. She said: “I practice medicine because I like it. I like people, I like dealing with the whole range of patients.” What stands out most in her career? “My patients,” she replied without hesitation.
Yet there was a time when she could not see herself being a surgeon. This was after a sneaked observation of the behaviour of a noted surgeon while performing a surgical procedure. Selma, then a QC student made up her mind at the time she would not be a surgeon because of the “callousness” of the two professionals she witnessed at that time.
Her experiences after that, during internship and practical training under the watchful eyes of true professionals in the discipline helped to change her mind.
An internal examiner for the University of the West Indies (UWI), she said: “You teach more and more. You are an internal examiner for the university and that takes you to any one of the campuses that the university serves. I have been doing it for general surgery for years.” She regards being asked by the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) in 2000 to be one of the examiners in their paediatric surgery programme, as a highlight in her career.
“The beauty about doing medicine and surgery and being an examiner is that there is a network of people, and you do not have to rely on your own judgement. If you are not sure about something you can ask questions,” she added.
The unassuming 64-year-old Dame’s style of dress is simple. She wears no make-up and has maintained a simple hairstyle, always wearing her hair swept up in one simple knot. Devoted to her work, she has remained single because “I never found the right person.”
Considering her distinguished career, she has concerns about the practice of medicine today. “I think we need to go back to viewing medicine as a service and people as not just being divided into organ systems.
“What we are teaching now is that you can be a neurologist, or a cardiologist or a kidney specialist or something else, forgetting that everything relates to everything else. So I would like to see us go back to where we train our doctors to look after people.”