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Mrs. Jennifer Cameron-Bertie: Born for this!


These powerful words from Mahalia Jackson have led and inspired Mrs. Jennifer Cameron-Bertie along her life’s journey. Mrs. Cameron-Bertie is a nurse by profession, and was born and raised in Little Apple Bay, Tortola, British Virgin Islands. She comes from a large family with lots of siblings and is the mother of three daughters, Tasha, Tonya and Tara.

She retired 15 years ago after being a nurse for 37 years. When asked what made her want to become a nurse, she stated: “I feel like I was born to be a nurse”. She recalled from a very young age, even before becoming a teenager, always wanting to be a nurse. There weren’t any nurses in her immediate or extended family, so she was the first. Remembering being teased about wanting to be a nurse, people around her would say that she wanted to clean stool and sore feet. Yet, she has no regrets! Those words never held her back because she believed in her passion;. she was meant for this. There were opportunities to learn other fields such as typing, but she was never drawn to them; nursing was the only thing that piqued her interest.  “I think it was meant to be.” Mrs. Cameron-Bertie exclaims. This was her calling. 

Immediately after leaving high school in 1969, she started working as an assistant nurse at the Peebles Hospital in Tortola. She started with a group of six other nurses and out of that group of 6, she was one of three nurses that completed the formal nurses training. With the desire to advance career-wise and financially, in 1988, nineteen years after she started as an assistant nurse, gaining nursing experience, she decided to pursue her formal training. According to Mrs. Cameron-Bertie, she decided to go for her formal training because “without any formal document you tend to become stagnant. You can only go so far as an assistant nurse. You know the work; you’re doing the work but you don’t have the formal documents.” She desired more, formally, mentally and financially.

Once given the opportunity to go, she felt like it was the right time. She attended the then St. Kitts and Nevis College of further education now the Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College. Her training experience started with a six-week rigorous basic training in nursing school. The entire programme lasted a minimum of three intense years for general nursing which covered every field of nursing. This ended with basic and regional exams, which used to be called the council exam. Commonly in the Caribbean, nurses also do one year of midwifery so she completed that training as well. It was a rewarding experience; not only because of her academic accomplishment but also because she made lifelong friends.

Her nursing experience and exposure to all aspects of health prior to attending nursing school prepared her well. Prior to starting, she worked in community health at the clinic, as well as in mental health, the operating room, maternity ward, surgical ward and medical ward. The exposure made her well prepared to obtain her formal training. 

Her humility shined as she went to nursing school, not letting anyone know about her prior nursing experience, but rather enter her education in nursing as if she was a beginner. However, it didn’t take long for those around her to observe and conclude that she had some experience. 

One challenge faced was getting back into the classroom after so many years. There was no internet at that time. She depended heavily on her books, studying and working hard to complete her training, writing presentations by hand and physically turning them in. 

Her biggest challenge, though, came from leaving her family. She had to make the difficult decision of leaving her three young daughters in the care of family members in order to pursue her nursing education. She had never left her girls before and that posed a challenge. She was unable to see or communicate with them as much as she liked as this was before the time of video calling and WhatsApp. 

After returning to the workforce with her formal education, she loved every field of nursing but especially midwifery. She found joy caring for the pregnant women, the labour and delivery as well as postpartum care. She loved watching the babies grow. With a bright smile on her face Mrs. Cameron-Bertie reflects, saying to this day she would meet people on the street and they would say “Nurse, this one is one of yours”. She feels a sense of accomplishment that she has helped someone and seeing the fruits of her labour. She only regrets not completing a scrapbook to document the children she delivered. Even now, she remembers details of some of the children she had delivered such as the mother’s name, the date and time of birth. 

During one of her most memorable nights, she was the only midwife on duty with five pregnant ladies in labour. When she analyzed the situation, she decided to call Dr. Kendrick Pickering for help. She, along with an assistant nurse and Dr. Pickering, delivered five babies back to back with no incident. After such a busy night, she remembers getting home around 10 am, entering her house, taking off her shoes and getting ready for bed. She recalls putting her knee up on the bed and she must have fallen asleep before her head hit the pillow because that was the last memory of that eventful night.  It was a night that would be etched in her memory forever! With a slight chuckle she says “I hope if Alzheimer’s hits me, it doesn’t take that away!”

Mrs. Cameron-Bertie had many wonderful experiences while being a nurse. But because of her passion for nursing, the bad experiences also make a big impact on her. To this day she remembers one bad experience that stuck with her through the years where she had to deliver a baby, but it did not go according to plan. She thinks about it all the time. Thankfully, she never experienced any deaths. 

In her opinion, the hardest part about being a nurse is the sacrifices that her family had to make. As a single parent, there were tough times where she could not always be there for her children when they needed her. She vividly remembers missing her daughter Tonya’s graduation from the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College due to being overseas with a patient. With a sad sigh, she reflected, “it wasn’t a happy day because things like that you do not miss.” She never missed another graduation after that. In fact, she made it a priority not to miss any other major event. She said, “if I’m not feeling well, they need to take me in a wheelchair!”

Empathy, according to Mrs. Cameron-Bertie, is the greatest skill a nurse should have. “It doesn’t matter what degree or educational experience you have; without empathy and a caring spirit, you will not be a good nurse. You have to like people and think of your patients as your loved ones, and treat them with the same level of care. Without those qualities, you are only “a gong and a clanging cymbal” In Mrs. Cameron’s eyes, “patients are people, not just something” in a bed. They deserve care and respect. Their family should feel at ease that when they are not around their loved one, they are being cared for by people who care about them. And patients should feel your caring presence –  that you feel their pain and their concern.” This is the attitude that Mrs. Cameron-Bertie strived to exemplify during her years as a nurse. 

“Nursing isn’t a maid’s job. A nurse spends more time with the patient so they have to be an advocate for the patient. Nursing is a profession where you are trained, so be confident in what you are trained in and Stand up!” –Mrs. Cameron-Bertie

Healthcare in the BVI has changed drastically over the years and Mrs. Cameron-Bertie has lived it all. She has worked in the community in which she was born and raised, Little Apple Bay, and so she knew everyone there personally. If anyone was sick at home or had a baby she would know and made it her business to visit at least every two weeks to care for them. They did home visits throughout the western side of Tortola every week. During home visits, she would not only take care of their health needs, but would talk to them and became an important part of their community. Back then, the nurse would visit homes and the family would have little packages of goodies waiting for her. In West End, they would have fish waiting for you, and in Carrot Bay, you would get breadfruit or whatever they would have planted. You couldn’t refuse the gifts. It was a pleasure to conduct home visits. Presently, you don’t have that close-knit community anymore, due to the expansion of the population. Nurses no longer do regular home visits, possibly due to a heavier workload at the clinic. Now everything is computerized, so a lot of time is also spent recording everything. Before, she would write all her notes in a notebook. 

Retirement was not a difficult decision. Being mentally prepared for this time, she left with no regrets. She felt like she had done her part and knew it was time for her to move on. Wanting to “live” and fully enjoy her retirement, she left her profession before the age of retirement. She also wanted to be there for her siblings and family members when they get older as she is the family nurse. Whenever anything happens, she usually gets the first call and she springs into action travelling to wherever her family is to offer her assistance. She is truly a nurse at heart. 

Upon retiring, she volunteered with the BVI Red Cross for some years, and taught the Homecare Basic class. Cooking and baking are also her passion, so she participates in food fairs during times of festival. And in the Christmas season, she is usually very busy making a local delicacy, tart. 

“If this is what you want, go for it! Do it when you’re fresh out of school, before starting a family. Family makes a difference in whether you go or stay. Get it done and come back home and contribute to your Territory. Prepare yourself educationally. Apply to a school with a good nursing programme; give it your best shot. Do it while you’re young!”

Mrs. Cameron-Bertie is passionate about local nurses that do not return home to contribute to the Territory. She says, “we are blessed to receive scholarships and do not have to pay back a penny. The least we can do is come home and contribute to our country. We should not be ungrateful.” Representation matters. It feels good to go to the hospital and hear a local voice saying “I’m the doctor”. She states that, “This is comforting to know that one of your own people is caring for you. It makes you feel good. Come home and contribute.”

She encourages women to stand up! “Women, we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God. We need to take care of our bodies. We need to take care of ourselves, physically and mentally. STAND UP! Stand up to anything and everything. Stand up for what is right and for your families. Do not consider yourself as second class or second to any man. You are as good as any man. A man can’t have a baby, you do the hard work. You are special!”

Her advice to the community during this pandemic: “Stay home! Wash your hands! If you can’t remember if you’ve washed your hands, wash them again. And put on the mask on your face when you’re leaving the house. Keep out of people’s faces and keep out of people’s places. Stay home!”

She loves her community. She wishes there was an upsurge of youth that wants to see the community thrive with positivity. Mrs. Cameron-Bertie states, “You would hope when you leave this earth, you would have left a mark on somebody who would say this is how she inspired me.”

Mrs. Jennifer Cameron-Bertie is grateful to her family for supporting her; especially her children – for the great sacrifices they made, and her community for embracing her, and the Government of that time for affording her the opportunity to obtain her formal training, and the nurses that inspired and encouraged her such as Geraldine Norman, Milicencia Ahorne, Vesily Mactavious, Rita Frett-Georges and Ms. Tatica Scatliffe.

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