Syringa Marshall Burnett: A journey replete with excellenceSunday, June 04, 2017
The following is an edited version of the presentation made at the third annual Syringa Marshall Burnett Memorial Lecture on May 24, 2017 at The University of the West Indies, Mona:
The truth is that my life was transformed after I met Syringa Marshall Burnett. In 1991, my colleagues will recall, Syringa was the president of the Nurses Association of Jamaica (NAJ) while I was a finalising student at the Kingston School of Nursing (KSN). I was the president of the student body at the KSN and had frequent interface with external stakeholders such as the NAJ.
On one occasion, Syringa engaged me in one of those “how is school?” conversations and I shared my experiences with her. In concluding the conversation, Syringa quipped, “You betta do well, otherwise I'll sit on you.”
I took Syringa's threat seriously.
Her love, generosity and thoughtfulness for me blossomed into years of an effective mentor-mentee relationship until she passed in 2014. She passed on my birthday, further ensuring that her memory is forever etched in my mind.
With Syringa as a mentor I was never afraid to take risks, because of her assurance to catch me should I fall. Associating with Syringa empowered me to be acutely aware, at all times, that hard work and commitment were necessary ingredients for a successful career and life generally.
In 1998 I proceeded to the Department of Advanced Nursing Education (DANE), now the UWI School of Nursing, to pursue a BSc in Nursing Education. Syringa maintained her constant watch until I completed the course of study. I had no idea how keenly my progress was being monitored. One day I was invited to her office in her capacity as head of DANE. She seemed a bit perplexed and asked, “How did you do it? You were involved in so many activities on the campus and you still achieved First-Class Honours!” It seems that the threat she made to sit on me, in 1991, resonated with me, and as such failure was not an option.
In 2008, in her usual caring style, she assisted in several ways as I prepared to take up a Commonwealth scholarship in New Zealand. Syringa was very resourceful and so she recommended documents and articles that she thought might be useful for my course of study. Travelling to New Zealand did not negatively affect our relationship. We maintained contact, and believe it or not, there were times when I needed Jamaican textbooks and they were couriered to me in short order. Syringa was also instrumental in proofreading some chapters of my thesis. These attributes epitomised true commitment to a relationship which is sometimes a challenge to find in modern society.
I returned home in 2013 and we had e-mail and telephone conversations, but no opportunities for face-to-face interaction. In October 2014 she decided it was a good time to read my thesis, and so I journeyed to Beverly Hills to visit her at home. She fell ill and passed shortly thereafter, and lost the opportunity to read the thesis.
Syringa Marshall Burnett was a nurse extraordinaire, a nurse who was on a mission. According to one writer, “Syringa was a life shrewdly chartered, often engineered by five-year plans. Her goals were clearly articulated, hers was a life imbued with achievements, one steeped in exemplary service to humankind, her profession, and the nation generally.”
Hailing from Highgate in the parish of St Mary, Jamaica, she is named from a “genus of the lilac family. Syringa was an epitome of the shrub which blooms effusively in the month of May”, and incidentally, she was born in the month of May.
At the age of 18, Syringa commenced her nursing education at the KSN, formerly Kingston Public Hospital Teaching Department. As you may have guessed, she was one of the youngest nursing students in her class.
She was no walkover as a student, and she did not hesitate to defend the cause of the patients in her care. It is reported that on one occasion she refused to take up duty on the ward because she was unhappy with the evening meal served to the patients. Her rise to prominence in Jamaica as an advocate for the cause of many therefore needs no explanation.
As an avid reader, Syringa's quest for knowledge shaped her into the influential national figure she became. She worked briefly as a registered nurse in secondary care, then contributed to preventive and promotive care by offering her services in the hotel industry for some time. In 1972 she was offered a job at the Advanced Nursing Education Unit (now University of the West Indies School of Nursing), where she served until her retirement.
She was a dedicated member of the Webster Memorial United Church, serving as elder and committee member. She was also an active member of the Soroptimist International of Jamaica Club and a justice of the peace for the parish of St Andrew, in addition to being chairman of the National Council for Senior Citizens.
Contribution to nursing education
Syringa's contribution to nursing education spanned over 32 years. She eventually rose to the leadership of the institution, being promoted from tutor, to senior lecturer, to head of department in 1989. She utilised her international experience to impact the manner in which she executed her academic responsibilities, and as such her students were never in doubt as to their role on return to their countries and places of work as they impacted nation-building.
She was instrumental in initiating the annual nursing and midwifery research conference, engaging not only nurses in Jamaica, but regionally and internationally. It was also under her leadership that the international education conference was held alongside International Council of Nurses (ICN) and Council of National Representatives Conference (CNR) in 1991.
In 1996, also under her leadership, the Sigma Theta Tau International, in collaboration with UWI, co-hosted a research congress which attracted nursing leaders from across the world. To increase the number of young people entering the nursing profession, Syringa participated actively in the expansion of the KSN and was instrumental in the establishment of the Cornwall School of Nursing.
As a nurse educator, Syringa ensured the professional advancement of nurses and was keenly involved in the effort to create a university-based nursing education programme in Jamaica. She introduced the Bachelor of Science in Nursing Programme at the UWI, Mona, and at Brown's Town Community College in St Ann.
Noteworthy is the fact that, in 1996, at the request of the Ministry of Health, Syringa developed the curriculum for the mental health nurse practitioners programme, graduating its first cohort in 1998. She continued her stellar contribution to nursing education at the UWI until her retirement in 2001, after which she contributed on a part-time basis for four years.
While at UWI, Mona, Syringa served as an educator, researcher, administrator, consultant, senior lecturer, head of department, member on the Faculty of Medical Sciences Board, and member on the academic board.
Syringa became an executive member of the NAJ in 1973. She then served as president on five occasions between the periods 1973 to 1993, making her one of the longest-serving presidents of the association. She was a life member of the NAJ.
Syringa's leadership impacted both the regional and international landscape. She commenced involvement with the ICN by attending the ICN Quadrennial Congress in 1973. This was the beginning of a new dimension to her career, attending all ICN congresses after 1973. She served eight years (1977 - 1985) in various capacities. She represented ICN at the World Health Organisation (WHO)/United Nations International Children Emergency Fund and the Primary Health Care Alma-Ata Conference in 1978. Additionally, Syringa served as ICN resource person on the WHO primary health care workshop in Kenya in 1979.
Having the knack for global nursing leadership, Syringa offered herself to run as president for the ICN in 1993, but failed to achieve the mandate of the majority. However, she served as chair of the ICN/3M International Scholarship committee.
Other local, regional and international organisations which Syringa served included the Nursing Council of Jamaica; Jamaica Association of Mental Health; Commonwealth Nurses Federation and Global Institute for Nursing and Health; International Advisory Board - Journal of Nursing; WHO expert committee on nursing; as well as regional nurses' organisations, inter alia.
Syringa succeeded Miss Gertrude Swaby as the editor for the Jamaican Nurse Journal in 1976 while contributing to numerous articles in referred and non-referred professional journals and books.
Advocacy and politics
Syringa used this platform to embark on programmes and policies that ensured the greater good for nurses. She fiercely and vociferously led the negotiating team, and in 1991 she challenged a government order for nurses to end industrial action and return to work. Her blatant disregard for the government order resulted in an ex parte summons for an injunction to be issued for the team to appear before the Supreme Court to answer charges. The team was not fazed by this action, and the nurses' requests were honoured. To strengthen her negotiating skills, Syringa forged alliances with several significant trade unionists.
Noted for her negotiating prowess, Syringa successfully negotiated with the National Housing Trust to obtain funds to build a hostel for nurses. We nurses from the rural parishes have enjoyed this facility. In 1976, Syringa was instrumental in formulating a policy and mortgage committee within the National Housing Trust, which resulted in more housing solutions for Jamaicans. Additionally, Syringa contributed to the Partnership Advisory Board, National Poverty Eradication programme in the Office of the Prime Minister, and served on the executive committee and National Executive Council of the People's National Party.
She was first appointed senator in 1992 and reappointed in 1998, serving until 2007. She served as deputy president of the Senate from1993 - 1995, and as president from 1995 - 2007. It was under her presidency that the Mental Health Act of 1995 was debated, amended and passed.
Syringa received numerous awards for her exemplary leadership, her contribution to the nursing profession, and to nation-building generally. Among the honours received were: Member of the Order of Distinction, Commander class, for service to nursing (1990); UWI Vice Chancellor Award for Excellence in the field of public service (2000); University of Toronto Alumni Association named her among 100 alumni who shaped the century; NAJ award for distinguished service (1998); NAJ Golden Jubilee Past President Pin (1996); NAJ award for service as Jamaican Nurse Journal editor (1998); Kiwanis Club of New Kingston Woman of Excellence (1998); Caribbean Nurses Organisation Honorary Award for service to regional nursing (1984); and in 2014 the World Health Collaborating Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Education, UWI, was renamed in her honour and is now called “The Syringa Marshall Burnett World Health Collaborating Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Education”.
Upon her death on October 10, 2014, she was accorded an official funeral service by the Government of Jamaica which saw a host of officials, ministers of government, nurses, family members and friends participating in the service. At her thanksgiving service on November 6, 2014, she was hailed as a stalwart of the nursing profession, and it was said that hers was a “journey all replete with excellence”. One minister said: “Her conduct of public business was impeccable...No one dared question her integrity in all of her 15 years of public service. When individuals ask, 'Can anything good come out of Gordon House?' I can say an emphatic 'yes', because we have had individuals such as Mrs Syringa Marshall Burnett, who graced the institution and served with distinction.”
1. Strong, visible leadership in nursing and midwifery education and practice. Syringa was an excellent team player. She led by example, was relentless in her efforts, and took charge. She raised awareness about a leadership that should be responsive to changing trends in education as well as adopting new ways in which nursing and midwifery services are delivered.
Syringa demonstrated that effective leadership and involvement at the policymaking level are required to break barriers. She expended an appreciable amount of energy in this area.
Equally, her work reinforced the call for the kind of leadership which involves advocacy.
Of note, also, is that the theme for International Nurses Day 2017 was 'Nurses: A voice to lead', achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The theme is timely because in 2015, 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations to replace the Millennium Development Goals. These goals cover a number of sustainable development issues such as improving health, ending poverty, and adopting measures to address climate change, among others.
2. Mentorship is crucial. Mentoring could not escape my lens as I am a beneficiary of sound mentoring. You will agree, ladies and gentlemen, that we are lacking in this area as a profession. More mentors are needed in nursing education and practice, as we are faced with the challenge of having young graduates assigned to positions of responsibility, sometimes without structured orientation due to the mass migration of experienced nurses.
Further, it appears — and I am treading cautiously here since I do not have sufficient empirical data to substantiate this argument — that some are reluctant to be mentors because of issues such as professional jealousy. I implore you, my colleagues, to reflect on Syringa's work as a mentor and act accordingly.
3. Be involved and engaged in development activities: This requires nurses and midwives to build local, regional and international partnerships to provide capacity building and technical support for nursing and midwifery policy, faculty development, regulatory and curricula reform, professional development and retention, and impactful nursing and midwifery leadership. (Columbia University, 2017)
Involvement with the professional organisation and other organisations may be useful conduits for engaging in developmental activities.
4. Research — Nurses and midwives should be motivated to engage in research. They are to be encouraged to play active roles in conducting and disseminating research findings. This, no doubt, will add to the new body of knowledge. Syringa had a keen interest in research and understood the process very well. I recall presenting a research paper, ladies and gentlemen, and at the end she invited me to her office and sternly advised that my paper was not scientific enough and that more work was required. One of the hard lessons.
Syringa championed the cause of nursing and the nation generally. Let's keep the trail ablaze.
Adella Campbell, PhD, is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and is head of the Caribbean School of Nursing, University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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