By Lindsey Blisard
Dr. Claudette Heyliger-Thomas founded Bridges Global Medical Missions in 2008 with the sole purpose of giving back to the country that she is from–Guyana.
Her team of volunteer medical professionals ranges from nurses and social workers to doctors of different specialties, such as endocrinologists, gynecologists and cardiologists.
Food For the Poor, an organization in the United States that helps to provide donated items, meals, and healthcare to poor areas, has been one of her greatest supporters. They supported her in the beginning of her mission work and continue to support Bridges Global Medical Missions by donating shoes, clothing and toiletry items for her to distribute in the country.
When Heyliger-Thomas started Bridges, she knew in the beginning it would be challenging to help the entire country, so she decided to start near where her mother grew up – West Coast Berbice and Parika.
On her first medical mission in 2008 to Guyana, Heyliger-Thomas brought along with her a team consisting of her cousin (a cardiologist), her daughter (a surgical resident), her childhood friend (a pharmacist), and her husband’s cousin (a nurse).
“It was family. Family, family, family,” she said. “I talked with them… they jumped on board, and we did it.”
Heyliger-Thomas left Guyana when she was 18 to attend university in Montreal, knowing that when she left, she wanted to be a physician. After going to UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, she became a pediatrician and has been doing private practice in Atlanta, Georgia.
In addition to her medical outreach, Heyliger-Thomas has also started a Continuing Medical Education program in Guyana. Since 2009, she and her medical team give lectures at the hospitals that they rotate at, but in the beginning, they felt they were leaving much of the country out and that not enough people were getting chances for expanding their education.
In 2017, as a collaboration with the University of Guyana, they put out ads in the newspaper to invite nurses, physicians, and allied health professionals to the Continuing Medical Education program. Diversity was important to her in order to get as many people to come to the conference as possible.
The number of people who showed up was something Heyliger-Thomas was not expecting.
“We catered for 100 people and 350 showed up,” she said. “I walked into the room and we were absolutely blown away.”
Sharon Armstead, a respiratory therapist, has been a part of the group since 2015. She is also from Guyana and, with Bridges, was able to return home for the first time since she was a child. She has gone with Bridges back to Guyana in order to help expand the respiratory therapy knowledge in the country.
Armstead said she appreciates Heyliger-Thomas because of the amount of passion she has for her profession and her country.
“She gets people from all over the world and all over the country to come and volunteer their time for free,” she said. “And they come because of Claudette.”
Heyliger-Thomas has several future projects she is working on.
Currently, she is trying to get a grant to help provide support for maternal health and prevent maternal death nationwide. She is also working with the University of Guyana to offer a respiratory therapy program within the school.
Bridges has worked with the Ministry of Public Health to provide care in the country. During a press conference in January of 2018 at Georgetown Public Hospital, Volda Lawrence, the minister of public health, and Dr. Karen Cummings, the minister within the ministry, explained how important the work that Bridges is doing for the country.
“We do not offer a first-world health service, but I can assure you that we are working towards that,” Lawrence said. “And we will reach our goals.”
Since she is close to retiring from being a physician, Heyliger-Thomas will make Bridges Global Medical Missions her primary focus. She hopes to work toward providing care to many other countries. Originally, her organization was just called Bridges Medical Missions, but after starting her missions and realizing that she wanted to go to places other than Guyana she added Global to expand her mission.
“My focus is not only Guyana,” she said. “My focus is to go to other places in the world.”
Featured image by Nigel Durrant