Successful SickKids Caribbean initiative extended
April 27, 2018
A basic conversation between a patient’s mother and medical practitioner mushroomed into a major health initiative that has raised millions of dollars to build capacity and improve the lives of children diagnosed with cancer in the Caribbean.
Dr. Victor Blanchette met Allan Magee and Melanie McCaig whose son, John Magee, was diagnosed with leukemia in July 2001 and provided the family with a greater understanding of the disease and treatment options.
While chatting with McCaig who graduated from law school and the Canadian Film Centre, Blanchette – who spent his first 19 years in Barbados – learnt that the Canadian family had a home in the Caribbean island where they spent significant time.
“I suggested that we try to do something in the Caribbean,” said Blanchette. “If you think of it, a young boy with leukemia in Barbados or anywhere in the Caribbean does not have the same opportunity as his cousin here in Toronto.”
It’s estimated that a Canadian child with cancer has close to a 90 per cent chance of surviving the disease while the survival rate for a Caribbean youth is about 50 per cent.
Impressed with Blanchette’s compassion and professionalism and satisfied with the care SickKids hospital provided their son who is now 21 and cancer free, Magee and McCaig initially funded a feasibility study which was used to identify where the gaps were in cancer care in the Caribbean.
The inequality of outcomes along with results from a needs assessment survey identifying huge gaps in care in the Caribbean prompted the SickKids Foundation to launch the Caribbean SickKids-Caribbean Initiative (SCI) to help build health care capacity in Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago and the Bahamas by training health care professionals, providing consultation and diagnostic expertise and developing and expanding access to treatment and supportive care.
Aimed at improving diagnoses and outcomes for children affected by paediatric cancers and serious blood disorders, the initiative receive a major financial boost from Magee and McCaig who made a substantial donation in 2009 to SickKids.
“They didn’t put any restrictions,” said Blanchette. “They said go and talk to the doctors and that’s what started it.”
At the first meeting in Barbados, the six countries were chosen based on some world-leading experts in blood disorders, paediatric cancer and infectious diseases who have roots in those countries.
Children residing in Caribbean territories outside the selected hubs have access to the specialists and facilities in the hubs closest to them for diagnosis and treatment.
SickKids Foundation set a target of $8 million to be raised in the first five years to the support the project launched in 2013.
The Canadian response to the call to help boost the survival rate of Caribbean children with cancer has been overwhelming.
The $8 million target was achieved in just over two years.
“That is simply amazing in these times,” said Blanchette who is the McGaig Magee medical director for the project. “We had great support from some of the banks doing business in the Caribbean and local business people. The first cycle of the project was completed on March 31 this year and a three-year extension beginning at the start of this month was granted.”
Capacity building is the program’s core capability.
Since the inception of the initiative, a local hospital-based oncology database was created, a data manager in each partner country was hired to capture demographic, treatment and outcome data which will help to improve the clinical management of paediatric patients and inform the design of future interventions, and telemedicine rooms in Barbados, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and the Bahamas were established to enable medical professionals in the Caribbean to connect with SickKids oncologists and haematologists and other global medical institutions to collaborate on clinical consultations and facilitate training and education to support the early identification and treatment of children in the Caribbean.
A nursing training program to further educate and train nurses in specialized areas of treatment for cancer and blood disorders was also developed.
Trained at SickKids, fellows Dr. Michelle Reece-Mills and Dr. Sharon McLean-Salmon are back in Jamaica as the country’s only fully trained physicians specializing in children’s cancer and blood disorders.
“The fellowship was fantastic and a great learning experience,” said McLean-Salmon who is at the Bustamante Hospital for Children. “I was honoured to have the opportunity to be mentored by some of the very people, especially experts in the area, who have written some of the protocols that treat people with cancer and blood disorders worldwide…I feel stronger and more secure in my information and the way I treat my patients today.”
Barbadian Dr. Chantelle Browne-Farmer completes her fellowship this year and a Trinidadian will start his in July.
Specialists in the Caribbean and at SickKids have collaborated to review nearly 60 clinical case consultations in the joint effort to improve outcomes for children with cancer.
“This initiative has gone beyond expectations,” said Blanchette. “I am very proud of it.”
He equated the project with the University of the West Indies (UWI) Toronto Benefit gala that has provided over 400 Caribbean students with scholarships in the last nine years.
“Both organizations are doing fantastic work to benefit Caribbean people,” he said. “The only difference is they are giving money and we are building capacity.”
Blanchette was honoured with a UWI Vice-Chancellor’s award at this year’s fundraiser earlier this month.
Though not a UWI graduate, Blanchette has a family connection to the institution.
His maternal uncle – Sir Roy Marshall – was the university’s Vice-Chancellor from 1969 to 1974. The former Barbados High Commissioner to London died three years ago in Barbados at age 94.
“This along with my Caribbean roots makes this award special,” said Blanchette who went to medical school at Cambridge University and then did his clinical training in London at St. Bartholomew’s hospital.
As a medical student, he did an elective in paedriatics at John Hopkins hospital before coming to Canada to work at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. He was recruited to SickKids in 1983 by Dr. Alvin Zipursky who was appointed head of haematology/oncology at the hospital after serving as head of the paediatric haematology at Hamilton Health Sciences.
Blanchette and his wife of almost 50 years, Yvonne, have four sons – two of whom are in the medical profession – and five grand-daughters.