A humble Dame
Surgeon surprised by national honour
She is the fifth of 12 children.
And from humble beginnings in St Philip, she can now boast of not only being the first woman surgeon in the Caribbean to have qualified and worked in the region, but also that she is Barbados’ newest dame.
The title of Dame of St Andrew was accorded to noted surgeon Selma Udine Jackman on Wednesday in this year’s National Independence Honours, granting her immediate entry into an exclusive club that is reserved for this island’s very brightest and best.
“I don’t think I have quite come to grips with that yet,” said the modest Dame Selma, who up until today was still trying to come to terms with the unexpected news of her national honour.
In fact, she suggested to Barbados TODAY that she was not befitting of the high honour, even though she was honoured that her colleagues had deemed her worthy of such national acclaim.
In announcing her elevation on Wednesday, Government singled Dame Selma out for her “outstanding service to the medical profession”, while highlighting her “team approach to patient care” and her “teaching attributes”.
“She does not make one feel like less than a person for not knowing or not being able to get it done.
“To the contrary, she reassured her students to learn from their mistakes and to recognize their human limitations,” the official citation said.
While accepting the honour, Dame Selma said she could not hold all the credit to herself.
The noted surgeon, who was the only female to be knighted in this year’s Independence Honours list, said she grateful to God and her God-fearing parents, as well as the Government and people of Barbados, who she said not only paid for her education from primary school right up to university, but also allowed her to use her God-given talents in service to them.
Not one who relishes the limelight, the retired Queen Elizabeth Hospital surgeon prefers to work in the background and “to be the force from behind that provokes people to do what they should do”.
Dame Selma, who still enjoys a successful private practice, says quality service is key since “you are dealing with people who are at the most vulnerable and it is really very important to have them comfortable.
“The other thing is that you get people who are old enough to be your grandmother, grandfather that you have to be looking after and that is a trust which I think we need to recognize the privilege that goes with it,” she said, stressing that “these people . . . really need to be treated with the courtesy and the honour that they deserve”.
She contended that “they are the ones who have worked to put us here, they are the ones who have allowed us to get the education that we have gotten and we really owe a lot to them and we should be looking out for their interests”.
Coming from a household with 11 siblings and parents who could ill-afford even the basics, Dame Selma was taught early to appreciate whatever she was given, like free health care by Government.
This is why it is so concerning to her that many today do not appreciate this important benefit.
“So maybe the time has come to ask people, no matter how small their contribution is, to recognize the privilege that they have and know that it comes at a cost,” she said in adding her voice to the recent debate on financing of public health care.
She also has some serious concerns about the practise of the medical profession these days.
In a bygone era, she said, doctors generally attended to the “whole person”.
“Not as a foot or a hand or a disease, but as a whole person where everything works together . . . . Whether that doctor is a surgeon or internal medicine or psychiatrist, looking at the entire person and making your assessment,” she said, adding, “I think that is what our training is lacking nowadays and I would like to see us return to that”.
Her other pet peeve is the current lack of attention to personal health that is fuelling the rise in non-communicable diseases.
“I get very distressed when I see the size of our youth, starting from childhood coming up and even more distressed when I see what it is their guardians, parents are allowing, encouraging and I think we have to come up with some plan as to how we get through to parents as to what they expose their children to.
“I think a lot of it has also to do with the lack of discipline that there is in our family today, where parents are no longer the authority figures.
‘And I think that is because parents nowadays think they should be the children’s friends,” she said.
However, she cautioned parents: “you are not friends, you are there for a reason, as a guide, a counsellor, somebody who helps shape and mold the child.”