Growing up as an asthmatic in Jamaica and observing closely on her regular hospital visits the detailed care, attention and companionship that nurses provide to their patients inspired Marcia Palmer to become a health-care professional.
Trained at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Campus and Jamaica’s only comprehensive sickle cell research unit in Kingston, Palmer migrated to Canada in 1988 and joined the Hospital for Sick Children (HSC) the same year as a nurse clinician.
She enjoys caring for her patients, especially those with sickle cell anemia.
“This is a disease that is misunderstood by many people and I relish empowering patients and others through education and advocacy,” said the recently appointed Sickle Cell Awareness Group of Ontario (SCAGO) youth advisor and Camp Jumoke and Camp Trillium volunteer.
Palmer was presented with a Nursing Award of Excellence at the SCAGO annual gala last Saturday night.
“I love my job and I view this award as recognition for the work I have been doing over the years in this noble profession,” she said.
Medical Award of Excellence recipient Dr. Melanie Kirby-Allen’s passion for nursing also began in the Caribbean.
“As a brownie girl scout in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, I remember going to the children’s ward of our local hospital and distributing gifts to the kids,” she said. “It was there as an eight-year-old that I decided I wanted to be in pediatrics.
Kirby-Allen pursued clinical studies at the UWI Mona campus and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados where she also interned before coming to Canada in 1984. She is the co-director of the HSC Sickle Cell & Thalassemia clinic, a Saturday morning tutor for children with sickle cell and a member of the SCAGO advisory board.
“One of the reasons I pay so much attention to people suffering with the disease is because they are an under-serviced group of patients,” Kirby-Allen said.
Registered nurse Doris Baxter was presented with a Community Award of Excellence while Safecare Medical Services health service manager and registered nurse Omolola Ajisafe, Toronto General Hospital transfusion medicine specialist Dr. Jacob Pendergrast and hematologist and University of Toronto assistant professor Dr. Richard Ward were the recipients of Recognition of Excellence in Duty Awards.
Federal Liberal MP Dr. Kirsty Duncan, who last December tabled a bill calling on the government to create a comprehensive national strategy for sickle cell disease and thalassemic disorders, was presented with a Tribute Award of Excellence.
The bill calls on federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to, among other things, initiate discussions with the provincial and territorial health ministers to develop thorough patient care throughout the life cycle, develop national standards regarding universal screening, create centres of excellence for both pediatric and adult care, assess best practices for patients to succeed at school and in the workplace and recognize June 19 as sickle cell anemia awareness day in Canada.
Other Tribute of Excellence Award winners were hematologist and internist Dr. Larry Grossman and retired York Regional Police Service chief Armand LaBarge.
John Adams, an advocate for newborn screening which has changed the paradigm of harm reduction and prevention in sickle cell disease and other disorders, was the recipient of the Humanitarian Award of Excellence.
Sickle cell disease is a life-threatening and hereditary blood disorder that causes malformation of red blood cells that become distorted when they transmit oxygen through the body while thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder in which the body is unable to process normal functioning hemoglobin.
Devastated by the loss of her Nigerian-based brother Sunday Afolabi to the disease 12 years ago, Lanre Tunji-Ajayi set up the Seed of Life philanthropic organization in June 2005 that morphed into the SCAGO to raise awareness about the hereditary disorder that affects mostly people of colour.
She spearheaded the launch of a campaign to create a comprehensive adult thalassemia and sickle cell disease program in the Greater Toronto Area that is adequately resourced to provide appropriate clinical staffing and access to supportive care.
To perpetuate her brother’s legacy, Tunji-Ajayi also started a scholarship program to help sickle cell students pursue post-secondary education. This year’s winners were Rukaya Yakubu and Fitz-Ann Howell.
“This academic award is a reminder to people like me who have the disease that we can have a voice even though we have challenges,” said Howell, a C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute Grade 12 student who was diagnosed with the disease when she was five months old. “When you have a disease like sickle cell, you are sometimes looked down upon by people who say you can’t do this and you can’t do that. The thing is we are able to do it.”
Howell, who like most students with the disease, has missed substantial classroom time because of frequent hospitalizations, aspires to be a psychologist.
Nursing student Jessica Amoako was presented with the Sholape Aribabu memorial bursary and Tamara Toppin-Watson received the Olivia Shiwoku memorial youth grant. Aribabu was a Brampton Civic Hospital nurse who died suddenly in 2008 while Shiwoku succumbed to the disease last September at age 29.
Allan Jones, the co-chair of Advocates for Black Health Improvement and a broadcaster, and CP24 reporter Nathan Downer were the Media Award of Excellence winners while Ontario’s Fairness Commissioner Jean Augustine and Revivaltime Tabernacle Inc. founding pastor Rev. Dr. Audley James were honoured with Tribute Awards of Excellence.
HSC clinical program coordinator Karen Fleming was recognized with the Volunteer of the Year award and veteran Toronto Police Service Const. Ojo Tewogbade, who
helped coordinate last February’s 17-day 500-kilometre Sickle Cell Torch of Life run from Parliament Hill in Ottawa to Queen’s Park, was honoured for his contribution.
Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle, who last March introduced a private members bill in the Ontario legislature that addresses the challenges faced by sickle cell sufferers, attended the gala.