(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — It happened four years ago, but she would only speak publicly about it now.
Imagine how a young doctor running a ward at a local hospital must have felt when she came face to face with the man who had taken out a contract to have her killed as a teenager … which resulted in her being shot, her father wounded and eventually killed in a subsequent attack.
Jerlene Brown had harboured thoughts of becoming a doctor even before she was shot at age 17 while she studied and kept company with her father at his shop and bar at Dover on the border of St Mary and Portland on April 12, 2005.
She had already safely put away eight Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects in one basket when she departed Marymount High School, on the outskirts of Highgate in St Mary, and was preparing to do even better in her Caribbean Advance Proficiency Examination (CAPE) unit one subjects at Titchfield High School in the Portland capital of Port Antonio when an incident delayed life’s progress.
“I was with my father and it suddenly got dark and we could hear someone come inside the yard, and when we looked up it was two men with guns. They started shooting and the lights came back on. They had plastic stuff over their faces. My father pushed me to the side and they shot him. I was sitting screaming with the book in my hands right against my chest, screaming, screaming, so they shot at me; first towards my head and somehow something turned my face, so the bullet grazed my nose. The second shot was right through my maths book; it went through my chest, to my spinal cord, to my kidney, part of my lungs and part of my stomach. And then they shot me again in my hand and I fell,” she recounted.
When her uncle took her and her injured father to the nearby Annotto Bay Hospital, doctors on duty there tossed her aside, saying that she was dead and they could do nothing more for her, and began to pay more attention to her father.
But the uncle realised that she was still breathing and alerted the medical staff, pleading to them: “She is not dead, she is not dead, she is breathing.” The medical team then managed to stabilise her and transferred her to Kingston Public Hospital where she underwent two surgeries.
“My father was still alive when I came out and they came back for him and shot him again and he died on June 6. There was a dispute over family land. The person who shot him lived right beside us,” she went on.
Not being able to do her CAPE unit one exams because of the incident, Brown sought a quick fix — sending out countless applications to get into institutions of higher learning while still preparing herself to do a year in upper sixth form.
“I wanted to become a doctor, so I sent out a lot of stuff. However, somebody told me to send something to Cuba as well, but I didn’t know where to go, so they said I should see the Member of Parliament in Portland. At that time it was Dr (Donald) Rhodd (who also studied in Cuba). Every day after school I used to go to his office and speak to his secretary and he never ever saw me. He never called me back … nothing. I brought a new application letter to his office every time I went there. One time he locked himself in the office and told them to tell me that he was not there,” she said.
“So, after that, I started doing voluntary service at Annotto Bay Hospital. I spoke to Dr (Ray) Fraser (senior medical officer) and he asked me to send my CXC results to him, and within a week somebody called me and said I was accepted to do nursing in Cuba. I said fine, I really wanted to do medicine but at least it was a start. So I started back school in September and was doing the two parts at the same time. Some of the exams clashed and I had to jump from one exam to the other the same day. I passed all eight subjects in unit one and unit two at the same time, and I called Dr Fraser and told him I passed and he said send me the stuff, which I did. And shortly after the Cuban Embassy called me and said I was accepted to study medicine in Cuba,” she said.
At the time that she got through to study in Cuba, Brown was also accepted to pursue medicine at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus, and also got a scholarship from the Government of China. But without a father to fund her and UWI tuition fee climbing past the $1 -million mark, she could not afford to stay in Jamaica. The China trip, too, though looking promising, was way too far for her.
Opting to journey 90 miles north to the Spanish-speaking socialist island, it soon turned out that life was tougher at that side of the globe.
“Cuba was the hardest thing for me in my life… harder than being shot,” she said, alluding to the limited funding that she had to live off, with very little from her own resources in the early stage of the scholarship.
“By the first year I benefited from an insurance policy that my father had put in place, so I had some sort of coverage. It wasn’t a lot of money, but for the first and second year it helped me a lot in school with my travelling, food, etc. But the third year, I almost did not go back to med school because I didn’t have any money, and Dr Fraser put on a fund-raiser to get money for me, so that was how I was able to go back,” Dr Brown related.
“I saved my stipend, which was given to us twice a year by the Cuban Government, but I still had problems with the food in Cuba because I was not accustomed to it without seasoning, etc. You had to put yourself in a frame of mind that you are going to eat it or die, because I could not afford anything else,” she explained.
Upon completing her medical studies in Santiago de Cuba, Brown was assigned to Cornwall Regional Hospital in September 2013, soon after she arrived in June of that year.
A call from Dr Fraser for her to help out at Annotto Bay Hospital where, in his estimation, she could prepare to sit her Caribbean Association of Medical Councils soon led her back to the institution of her birth — a stint that began in January 2014.
There she would come face to face with the man she said was behind her father’s killing and who also engineered the move for her to be shot and almost killed — a convicted drug dealer in England who had been deported from London earlier.
“I was the only intern on the medical ward at the Annotto Bay Hospital that day, so it was hectic for me,” she reflected.
“One of my first patients was the person who arranged for my father and I to be shot. He had come into the hospital with a chronic illness — heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure. He was very sick. So he was admitted there and I used to take care of him by giving him injections, Lasix and stuff like that, but he was very sceptical and he didn’t want me to touch him, but I was the only intern there so I had to explain to him that I had to do it,” Dr Brown told the Jamaica Observer.
“When he saw me he recognised me instantly and the first thing he said was, ‘Is not me shoot you, yu nuh. Don’t let people tell you that is me shoot you.’
“So after a time he started to say he didn’t want me to touch him, he didn’t want me around him, he didn’t want me near him because he didn’t want me to poison him. He eventually died in April after he was admitted in March 2014, and people started to say it was me who killed him. So I told Dr Fraser that I would prefer to leave St Mary and go to St Ann or somewhere else because I didn’t want them to retaliate, seeing how people are,” she said.
“I didn’t want them to do anything to me. A week after I requested a transfer I was in St Ann’s Bay, and I have spent the last three years doing orthopedic surgery at the St Ann’s Bay Regional Hospital and working at health centres in the parish,” Dr Brown said.
Looking back at the strange situation, she said that several non-medical people had suggested to her that she should not have touched the man whom she said was behind her father’s death and her own shooting. However, she insisted that being the only intern on duty, she had a professional responsibility to look after the patient to the best of her ability and to ensure that he got the best treatment possible. She maintains that she did nothing to risk his life, something that was corroborated by Dr Fraser, who told the Sunday Observer that there was nothing that modern medicine could have done to save the man’s life due to the multiplicity and complications of his ailments.
“That whole scenario is water under the bridge,” Dr Brown stated.
Incidentally, the man who was accused of being behind the death of her father and the attack on her was locked up by the police after the first incident. In a cruel twist of fate, though, her father bailed the accused man and within 24 hours her father was shot dead, allegedly by the same connection.
“My father didn’t want any strife. He was a peaceful man and wanted the family to live as one, but the others were not thinking like him,” Dr Brown said.
One of the men convicted of shooting her also died in custody at the Tower Street Adult Correctional facility.
Now, in the midst of a fledging medical career, she revealed that she has been made stronger by a combination of the violent incidents that have overshadowed her life and living in Cuba.
As for her being fearful of any semblance of reprisals, she is not perturbed.
“Some people were saying that I poisoned [the man] but I did no such thing. I did not receive any threats personally and I have got over my fears now.
“I am very happy to be helping people now. I am happy I survived the attack. I really wanted to do surgery to be able to assist people the same way how they assisted me by saving my life. But I am reconsidering that option. Now I would love to do private practice and I want to do charity work, especially for neglected, abused children. I’m very passionate about that. I would go back to St Mary to do charity work, not to work at the hospital… if they need any sort of free service at the hospital I would offer my services, but I wouldn’t work there because of the stigma and I would feel a bit uneasy,” said the young woman who is leaning towards specialisation in orthopedic surgery, although general surgery would have been her preference. However, she reckons that she might struggle to stay afloat in a male-dominated field.
Looking back at her struggles, she gives thanks to one individual who she believes shaped her life.
“I am very grateful to Dr Fraser. I don’t think I would have been here without him,” she said.