Dr Samantha Nicholson-Spence: For the love of medicine

Dr Samantha Nicholson-Spence: For the love of medicine


Monday, June 08, 2020

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LAST Monday was a hectic day for Dr Samantha Nicholson-Spence — the medical internist who heads the Department of Medicine at Kingston Public Hospital (KPH). She had a number of tasks to complete and a meeting to attend, yet the nurse kept handing her more dockets for patients who were waiting to be seen by her. Momentarily overwhelmed, she tried to protest, but the nurse placated her by pointing out that two of her 'babies' were among the batch of patients waiting to be seen. The doctor smiled and reviewed the files, knowing that her day would soon be made.

“I love seeing patients. I love my KPH patients,” the doctor told All Woman proudly. “They are very respectful and they look up to you. They expect that what you are doing for them is what needs to be done. It's an awesome responsibility, and I take it very seriously.”

She explained that her 'babies' are actually just some of the patients at KPH with whom she has formed lifelong friendships, so much so that other staff members can easily identify them among the thousands who pass through the busy hospital.

“One of the patients who visited me that day is a young man who has cerebral palsy,” she shared. “He has been seen by me since he was in his teens, and now he is in his twenties. I always admire him, because he has a weak arm and a weak leg and more able-bodied young adults than him aren't working, but he is very ambitious. Every time I see him, before we can even talk about his seizures, he lets me know what new training opportunity he is taking advantage of, or where he is working. I really feel like a part of his life.”

The doctor shared the journey of another of her babies, a woman whose file she came across after the patient had been repeatedly visiting the hospital for a year due to a suspicious growth on her neck. Dr Nicholson-Spence immediately suspected that it was cancer, and went about cutting through several layers of red tape to have her biopsy and surgery done, and chemotherapy started before she left the hospital again.

“Everytime I see her, I just want to cry tears of joy because I look at her and I think, 'Yes, this is why we do it.' This is why I do medicine,” the doctor said proudly.

Dr Nicholson-Spence confirmed without hesitation that she could not see herself in another career, or even any singular area of treatment. As a doctor of internal medicine, she is specially trained in the diagnosis of puzzling medical problems, the ongoing care of chronic illnesses, and caring for patients with multiple conditions. In fact, she chose to specialise in this area because she finds it somewhat mysterious, and she has always enjoyed a good mystery.

“Growing up I would read a lot. As a little girl I read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and so on, and I enjoyed the crime investigation TV shows,” the Campionite reflected. “I cultivated my love for the sciences and mathematics, and I remember always wanting to help people and make them feel better.”

After graduating from The University of the West Indies (UWI) with her bachelor of medicine, bachelor of surgery (MBBS) in 2007, Dr Nicholson-Spence did her internship at KPH, and has worked there since. Even while she completed her residency at the University of Miami, whenever she visited home she would pop by at KPH to remind them that she was coming back to work there. She was on a flight back to Kingston the very next day after her last exam.

“I love working here and I stayed over the years because on every level, from doctors to the admin staff, porter, janitors, everybody, we are just one big family,” she said affectionately. “I also love the fact that we're in a health care system where the patient can access certain things for free, so I don't have to worry about whether the patient can afford a certain medication or to see a certain specialist. Of course there is always room for improvement, and being in this position I just do my best to help to make it better.”

But after being exposed to the financial and human resource burdens on the public health system, Dr Nicholson-Spence decided to open her own private practice, Imani Medical, about six years ago.

“I started it because I wanted an outlet to practise a little independently outside of the confines of a hospital. Also, it allows me to see fewer ill patients who only have high blood pressure, for example, and try to prevent them from becoming stroke patients. At the hospital patients tend to be sicker and more complex,” she explained.

On a typical day, you will find her up early making breakfast and lunch for her family. After reading her Bible and doing devotion, she heads to work (all the while chatting on Whatsapp with Kargel, with whom she has been friends since first form). At the hospital she sees her beloved patients, carries out administrative tasks, resolves conflicts, and represents her department. Some evenings she goes to her private practice, then home to cook dinner, help her seven-year-old daughter with school, and encourage her 18-month-old son's cognitive development. After a long day she finally gets to snuggle up with Adrian, her college sweetheart to whom she has been married for 11 years.

It can become physically and emotionally exhausting, she admits, but she relies on her mother's example, her patients' good spirits, and her supportive family unit to keep her motivated.

“My mother is just a boss,” she said of the businesswoman who raised her in the semi-rural seaside community of Copacabana. “She instilled in me the ability to just do what needs to be done without complaining, and from a tender age she moulded me to be responsible.”

Although Dr Nicholson-Spence spent most of her childhood in Kingston with her mother, stepdad, and younger siblings, she also has fond recollections of returning home plump and tanned from summers with her dad at the all-inclusive hotel where he worked.

Though there are challenges, Dr Nicholson-Spence is happy that her life is filled with love — the love of God, the love of family, and the love of medicine.

“I am impacting lives at KPH and I do want to continue in that capacity, but I don't know what the future holds — perhaps being able to impact health care in the country on a bigger level,” she mused.

“If I stay at this level and I never rise above it, that's OK, too, because it's all about the patients, and it is such a rewarding experience. I just want to make health care better for Jamaicans.”

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