Doc’s journey to specialist
From humble beginnings growing up in the working-class area of Jackson, St Michael, Dr Corey Forde has become one of the most prominent figures and faces in Barbados’ COVID-19 battle.
The island’s lone infectious disease specialist, who is National Co-ordinator of Isolation Facilities for COVID-19 Management in Barbados, stands tall in his field.
Modesty shrouds the remarkable achievements of the former student of Sharon Primary School and the Alleyne School, who always wanted to be a doctor – a lofty aspiration, given the modest circumstances in which he was raised by working- class grandparents after losing his mother.
Forde does not hide the fact that his experience is characteristic of “the poor man’s story growing up”. But he always took a leap of faith, supported with financial assistance from a grandfather of limited means; his church family at the Emmanuel Baptist Church, who continuously demonstrated faith in his ability to achieve his goals; and his unswerving belief in God.
He applied to the University of the West Indies at St Augustine, Trinidad, to study medicine, unsure about how he would fund his education, and waited anxiously every day for the university’s letter of acceptance to arrive. When he opened that pink envelope, his heart leapt for joy while his grandparents screamed in excitement.
That was the beginning of a journey in which he would receive constant support from his late grandfather, whom he hails as “one of my greatest inspirations”.
During his internship at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) he seized the opportunity to do an elective course of study and decided to do “something atypical”. He went to South Africa’s King Edward Hospital in Durban despite being turned down for a bank loan for that course of study. Again it was his grandfather and the church coming to his rescue.
“Every juncture of my life there is something that changes the course of where I should go,” said Forde, noting one was the second opportunity to do an elective. He chose to go back to South Africa, where a programme was set up that allowed him to do training in tropical medicine. Yet again, the funds were provided by his grandfather and his church.
While being exposed to various areas of medicine during his internship at the QEH, he expressed an interest in infectious diseases. Forde credits QEH stalwarts such as Professor Sir Trevor Hassell, Professor Timothy Roach and Professor Dr Anne St John for their influence and encouragement in diverse areas along the journey he has taken to reach his position today.
That he was able to get into an infectious disease programme on scholarship at the University of Toronto, Canada, he says he owes in no small measure to the assistance of Jamaican-born Professor Herbert Ho Ping Kong and points out there were others to whom he owes a debt of gratitude.
Referring to the Canadian experience typically, Forde said he “jumped in head-first” and sought to secure the funding afterwards, confident that with God’s help it would come. It did with a combination of full-paid leave from the QEH, a Government Developmental Scholarship and a Canadian-Jamaican-based scholarship, which he completed in 18 months.
In Canada, his academic interest in HIV, shifted to Infection Prevention control and he returned to Barbados qualified in a specialty for which the QEH had no accommodation at the time.
“I came back in March and about a month later, I got called to the office by the chief executive officer and chief medical officer (of the QEH) and they said: “Corey, we have an outbreak in the hospital.” Babies were getting sick, and other patients were dying at the hospital from one of the world’s most virulent bugs.
Drawing on his knowledge and expertise, the hospital managed to bring the infection under control, and Forde’s star was lit.
“People see me now but they don’t see the path . . . . My story is so crazy, you have to live it to believe it,” said the soft-spoken doctor.
With the dearth of infectious disease experts in the region, he set up the Caribbean Infection Prevention Control Grouping in 2016. He also organised regional conferences through which his connection with the Pan American Health Organisation was established; he established significant connections with other international health organisations such as the Caribbean Public Health Agency and the World Health Organisation.
Forde was the first Afro-Caribbean person to be a presenter at the Infectious Disease Society of America, at a forum which got the attention of infectious disease control doctors around the globe.
He now lists this among career opportunities in which he established valuable relationships which have enabled him to build an international network of connections whose usefulness continues to be evident.
“Where I am now was built on by bridges with people,” Forde said. It is relationships such as these that he credits for providing him with the early information on the COVID-19 pandemic that enabled Barbados to get a jump-start on preparations for the arrival of the deadly virus on Barbados’ shores.
“Most Barbadians would not know that we started the COVID-19 battle back in December of 2019, Forde said. “I had wind through all my international connections with whom I have maintained close relationships that there were wranglings about something going on in China back in October 2019. I went to an international meeting and everybody was talking about this. When I got back to Barbados I got multiple calls from multiple people telling me: ‘Corey, there is trouble’.”
He relayed that information in January 2020 to the QEH administration.
“One of the things I always say, I am not a political person, I don’t get involved in politics. I am a medicine man. But I think that the move that the Government did by setting up the Harrison Point COVID-19 facility was a good decision.”
COVID has flared up in Barbados again amidst public criticism. Forde welcomes the scrutiny, saying: “People always criticise but I always say I like criticism because it makes me better. I like hard challenges because when I have a hard challenge is when I perform.
“One of the things I have learnt through the outbreak, even with the difficulties and any criticisms, is that when people criticise, look at what they are saying, don’t get angry and if there is any merit to it, fix it. I think that is what kept me in a mental good place during the outbreak,” he said.
He admits to sleepless nights pondering his responsibilities as head of the Harrison Point COVID-19 management facility; thinking about the patients for whose care he is principally responsible as well as his concern for the supportive team of first responders at all levels on whom he depends.
Forde is peeved about the way Barbadians are currently letting their guard down.
“People believe that COVID is over because cases have fallen and people are getting risky. But I tell them do not do that. I have strategised this outbreak based on what is going on in the world around us. Don’t make the same mistakes they are making. I know for sure there is a lot of COVID fatigue in Barbados but if you want to stay out of lockdowns, we have to follow the protocols.”
“My biggest concern is that Barbadians are about to drop the ball again.”
Forde remains shored up by his faith.
“How I feel now, I have gotten to here not by man. It could only be because of God,” said the devout Christian.
“It could be no other way because of the amount of things that I have to do on a daily basis, juggling to make sure it happens. But it is impossible to do it by myself,” he added. (GC)