Professor Maureen Samms-Vaughan — The children's champion

By KIMBERLEY HIBBERT

Monday, June 18, 2018

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PROFESSOR Maureen Samms-Vaughan is committed to furthering the progress of child health and child development in Jamaica.

Born in Hillside, St Thomas, but raised in Harbour View, Kingston, Prof Samms-Vaughan told All Woman that growing up, apart from the frequent visits to St Thomas and travelling to her father's place of birth in St Elizabeth, she often role-played a television programme called Flying Doctor, which, alongside her mother's care for other children, sparked her interest in medicine, particularly paediatrics.

“It involved a plane flying to somewhere in Africa and there was a pilot, a nurse and a doctor. My brother would play the pilot, I would always play the doctor, and my friend Cheryl played the nurse, and we all went into those professions. Differently, I always wanted to work with children as my mother was amazing with children. Over 60 people lived in our home as we were growing up and they were sometimes related, sometimes not. But whenever a child needed a place to stay my house was the port of call, and so my mother and my father were very, very welcoming. It was a very caring environment for children,” she shared.

And so when she left Vaz Prep and moved on to Excelsior High, Prof Samms-Vaughan already knew what she wanted to do and forged forward with her studies and subsequently entered the N1 programme at The University of the West Indies (UWI), where she did a couple of years in natural sciences before entering medicine.

Upon graduating from the MBBS programme, Prof Samms-Vaughan did a stint in The Bahamas before returning to Jamaica where she did her Doctor of Medicine degree in paediatrics in 1988 and also earned recognition from the Paediatric Association of Jamaica as the most outstanding graduate, an accomplishment made when she was heavily pregnant with her third child.

“I did the exams June, gave birth August, and in September joined the research team of the first Jamaican birth cohort study — the Jamaican Perinatal Morbidity and Mortality Survey. Dr Deanna Ashley from the health ministry invited me to be part of it and I jumped at it. I had just had my third child. Dr Ashley also gave me the opportunity to go overseas and continue the research project at Bristol. It was one of the sites known for birth cohort studies. The data collected from that, I also used for a PhD in epidemiology at the University of Bristol, UK,” she said.

Further, in 1993 she was appointed lecturer in child health at UWI and consultant developmental and behavioural paediatrician at the University Hospital of the West Indies. In the same year she developed the first child and family clinic for developmental and behavioural disorders, directing this service since its inception.

In 2001 she was promoted to senior lecturer and was appointed head of the Department of Child Health, and in continuing her love for research she was invited by a group from the Caribbean Child Development Centre to do research on a group of six-year-old children called The Profiles Project.

Based on that work, Prof Samms-Vaughan was made chairman of the Early Childhood Commission (ECC) in 2003 and mandated to implement all the recommendations she had made in the research, allowing her to use her experience and inform what the ECC should do. In 2005, the work from the Profiles Project was published through funding from the Planning Institute of Jamaica in a book titled Profiles – The Jamaica Pre-School Child, The Status of Early Childhood Development in Jamaica.

During her 13-year stint at the ECC, Prof Samms-Vaughan was able to move the commission from a staff complement of three to 200 people, influence and shape government policy, provide consultations across the Caribbean, and develop the first national strategic plan for early childhood development — which is recognised as an international model by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and used in other countries like Colombia. Her tenure also saw the development of the child health passport, the 12 standards for early childhood institutions, and the inspectorate and regulatory arm of the ECC.

In recognition of her contribution to national development, she was invested with the Order of Distinction, Commander class, for services to early childhood development and child health in 2007, and was also appointed UWI's first professor of child health and child development in the same year. She was also part of an eight-member research team that published the Global Report 2017 titled Know Violence in Childhood: A global learning initiative.

Affectionately called “Aunty Prof” at the clinic, Prof Samms-Vaughan is one of two development and behavioural paediatricians locally. She is also the lead researcher in the new and recently launched Jamaica Birth Cohort Study, which began in 2011 and has been going on for the past seven years. The study, more popularly known as JA Kids, is a comprehensive exploration of child health and development in 21st century Jamaica. The goal of the study is to improve the health and well-being of Jamaica's children by providing valuable data on the relationships among a wide range of family, school, community, environmental and individual variables. The study collected national data on maternal health and well-being, pregnancy, paternal well-being and involvement, children's status at birth and at various points thereafter, and children's experiences and growth through the first two years of life.

Prof Samms-Vaughan, who has also done extensive research around autism, has encouraged her colleagues to look to joining her field of paediatrics, as locally it is a tremendous area wherein they can impact a child's development.

“If we don't look after our children's development we are lost as a country. The prevalence of developmental disability is one in every seven children in the developed world. These are medical disabilities. We are not looking at things like divorce and death, and the proportions of children and families that need support is tremendous. We could certainly use more people,” she said.

Outside of work, Prof Samms-Vaughan enjoys spending time with her three children and husband Kenneth, whom she lauds for his support in all her initiatives. She also praised her parents for the support they gave her throughout her educational journey.

She also enjoys travelling, writing and doing work with her church, St Matthew's Anglican in Allman Town. Her philosophy is to live life knowing that God is in charge.

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