Dr. Carissa Etienne: “I just wanted to be the best doctor I could be.”

The content originally appeared on: Sun Dominica

Profile of Dr. Carissa Etienne by Johnson JohnRose

Talk to Dr. Carissa Etienne even for a few minutes, and you’ll detect the little girl in her. Maybe it’s the sparkle in her eyes as she engages you in conversation, displaying a somewhat reserved enthusiasm.

Talk to the soon-to-be PAHO director long enough, and you’ll most certainly discover the child in her. Maybe it’s the obeisant nature she exhibits, almost apologetic for talking about herself. Maybe it’s the laugh. Not the loud, overbearing, contagious sort of laugh. A subdued sort of laugh. Almost a giggle. And she laughs often.

“I’m still childish,” she told The Sun from Washington.

And, not for the first time during the 56-minute interview, she laughed. A subdued, almost shy, holding-it-back sort of laugh.

Probe her for any length of time, and you will surely discover something else. Carissa Etienne is smart. Very intelligent. Maybe it’s the way she speaks. Confident, yet unassuming. Maybe it’s the way she appeals to your soul. You’re almost tempted to pay obeisance to her, to bow, to curtsy.

Dr. Etienne came to Dominica as a little girl, she told The Sun. Born in Curacao, where her father worked, and her parents returned to Dominica when she was four. Fifty-six years later, she still recalls parts of the journey.

“I remember the plane ride; I remember us being in a hotel in St. Kitts,” she said.

During their time in Curacao, her mother, a teacher, homeschooled the young Carissa. Therefore, having to go to school and sit with students her age in Dominica was quite a different experience. Not unnerving, just different.

“It was a new experience entering school with other students,” Dr. Etienne recalled.

However, being homeschooled meant she was more advanced than the average five-year-old here, making it difficult to fit in. She skipped several classes during her primary school life, and by age nine, she was in standard seven, ready to sit the common entrance examinations.

“The old school masters would pick out the bright students and skip them a few classes,” she recalled.

Despite her level of intelligence, or maybe because of it – young Carissa found a way to relate with her peers.

“I went to school barefoot,” she told The Sun.

It wasn’t because her parents couldn’t afford to buy her shoes. It was because she refused to wear them. Having failed to convince her daughter to keep her shoes on, her mother resorted to sandals, then slippers. Nothing worked.

“In the end, she gave up, so I went to school barefoot.”

It was a practice that would later help keep Dr. Etienne grounded, so to speak.

“Up to now, I still like walking barefoot. I like to feel my feet on the ground,” she said with a laugh. A self-deprecating sort of laugh.

At age ten, Etienne entered secondary school. Back then, the government granted 15 scholarships. However, Dr. Etienne recalled they could afford only ten that year, so they asked the private sector to give the additional five. Carissa Etienne got one of those from J. Astaphan & Co.

But she was still a little girl. And the principal of the Convent High School, her chosen school, saw her as such.

“I remember my mother and I going to the CHS, and Sister Elaine (the principal) said, ‘This child should be in pre-school,”‘ she recalled.

Her mother stood up to the principal and demanded that not only would her daughter attend CHS, but, as a scholarship winner, she would go straight to second form.

“I don’t think I ever grew up in Convent,” she said.

She spent only two terms in the second form as that was the year the government shifted the start of the school year from January to September. She would go on to repeat fourth form because the principal thought she was not emotionally ready for promotion.

“In retrospect, it was a good decision because I wasn’t mature enough.”

Despite also spending two years in sixth form, Etienne, at age 16, was too young to attend university to pursue her childhood desire to become a doctor.

“So I put on my uniform and went back to school.”

The school tolerated her for about a term, having her teach “while in uniform” before she moved on to work briefly at Astaphan. At age 17, she went to university.

However, somewhere along the way, in her early teens, the doubts began to creep in. But her mother encouraged her, and her father wouldn’t allow her to slip. He would push her, often quoting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about sacrifice.

“The heights by great men reach and kept…” She recited the entire poem as if her father were standing there. Plus, she didn’t fancy staying home and doing housework.

“I was lazy. I didn’t want to do house chores.”

With the issue settled, the teenager headed to the University of the West Indies, where she would obtain degrees in medicine and surgery. She later did her Master’s at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (1981- 1982), where she studied major healthcare management, emphasising healthcare in developing countries.

Dr. Etienne graduated from UWI in 1976 and immediately began a family.

“] got married right after I graduated in 1976. Still childish,” she said and laughed again. Mockingly.

“Fortunately, to a man with a lot of patience.”

Thus began an exceptional career that would see her become chief medical officer, director of primary health care services, national epidemiologist, and a host of other positions. Internationally, she has served as assistant director at PAHO/WHO and is currently wrapping up her position as assistant director general of health systems and services of WHO.

“I just wanted to be the best doctor I could be,” she said.

She honed her skills working with “an excellent clinician” in Dr. Gerard Grell, she said, and was called upon to “fill the role that he had” after he left “just two months after I came.”

So she worked on two medical wards every day for two years, “on call every day, every night.”

“But I had a very supportive husband.”

The morals and principles instilled in her by her parents are evident today in the broad, expansive generosity of spirit that encompasses every single compassionate decision she makes.

“When we were growing up, my mother inculcated in us the dignity of the human being,” Dr. Etienne said reflectively.

Asked what was the one thing she was most proud of, Dr. Etienne stuttered. She never even thought of it, she told The Sun. But she talked about her spirituality, her relationship with God and her love of giving. At one point, she and her husband acted as “mom and dad” to fifty children, mentoring them and organising activities with them “every two weeks for two years”. And, she said, the more she gave of herself, the more she gained spiritually.

“I love the Lord, and I think the Lord loves me,” she said. “At least I would like to think He loves me.” And she laughed again. A satisfying, saintly sort of laugh that exposed the little girl in her.

(Editor’s note: The Sun published this profile, above, of Dr. Carissa Etienne on 12 December 2012 when she was the Sun’s Person-of-the-Year. Dr. Etienne died on 1 December 2023. She was 71.

The Official Funeral for the late Dr. Carissa Faustina Etienne will be held on Wednesday, January 10, 2024, at 2:00 pm at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Newtown, the Government of Dominica has announced).