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Dr Pereira-Sabga takes over from Laquis at Cancer Society

Big shoes to fill
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Chairman and medical director of Vitas House Hospice Dr Jacqueline Pereira-Sabga. photo: Brian Ng Fatt

It’s not often you ask a woman to talk about herself and she starts with her age. 


“I’m 40 years old,” says Dr Jacqueline Pereira-Sabga.


Her laugh was infectious.


“It doesn’t matter. It is what it is,” she said.


It was Tuesday afternoon at her office in Regents Tower, Westmoorings. 


She’s a general practitioner, chairman and medical director of Vitas House Hospice, and she is set to fully assume leadership at the Cancer Society later this year. She replaces Dr George Laquis, who’s been at the helm for over 40 years. 


But she thinks her most important role is being a mother to her son and daughter. 


The hospice cares for terminally-ill cancer patients and is the society’s “baby.” It was established about five years ago. 


Despite her position, she visits each day because she enjoys chatting with her patients. 


The graduate of the University of the West Indies said she believes that patients should have a proper death.


She is passionate about palliative care and oncology. She said palliative care should always be integrated into any medical system.

‘I love what I do’


At age 15 she started her bachelor’s degree at North Carolina State University and did courses in pre-med and pre-law. 


Asked how that was possible, she mouthed the words, “I don’t know.”


She left Holy Name Convent at the end of Form Four to continue studies in Virginia. 


As a child growing up in Goodwood Park she wanted to become a vet, then thought of law, but it was at university that she developed an interest in medicine.


“My dean got me a job at one of the hospitals and I think that’s when I really started to understand and like and become passionate about medicine,” she said. 


It’s now 25 years later and she juggles many hats without complaints.


She said, “I’m exactly where I want to be. 


“I wake up every day loving that I am a doctor. I want to be the best doctor I can be.”


So how exactly does she handle it all?


Her days are impossible but rewarding and she gave credit to her “fantastic” husband, children whom she said have made parenting easy, family members who are supportive and teams at Cancer Society and the hospice.


“I don’t know how it works.


“I think I have an amazing family, my husband is fantastic and supports me absolutely, entirely and is always ready. 


“And I have a great family support network and I feel that is a huge allowance for how I am allowed to do what I do. In addition to which, at Cancer Society and Vitas House we have a fantastic team who works tirelessly.”



Vitas House a dream come true


After graduating from medical school she started a job at the emergency room at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital and met Dr Gerard Farfan and the wife of the late John Stollmeyer, Pat. 


“They used to go on a weekend to visit their terminally-ill patients and I soon joined them.


“It was something that was incredibly rewarding.


“When Dr Laquis brought to the front that as part of Cancer Society’s armamentarium he wanted to have a hospice, it was just really like a dream come true for Pat and myself.”


The hospice is free and accommodates 12 patients on the grounds of the National Radiotherapy Centre, St James. 


“It is something I am very proud of,” she said.


She boasted that the facility was well-run and well-organised by a wonderful team. 


To date, the hospice has admitted and cared for close to 370 patients.


There is a team of nurses, a manager and a resident doctor.


She said the demographics of the patients were from very young to the elderly.


“We have had a patient as young as 19.


“When we looked back at our admissions to Vistas House over its inception period you will find that the average age, irrespective of cancer was 62.”



Young doctors interested in palliative care


While palliative care should always be integrated into any medical system, Pereira-Sabga said what was ideal was home hospice care.


“Pat and I have been doing that. Pat a lot longer than me, and I think that once there are more resources and people...I think there are many young doctors that are coming up who are interested in palliative care and will in fact follow through on that,” she said. 


Home hospice care is ideal, but she said an actual hospice was important because sometimes the care given there may be better than what a patient might get in a home hospice situation. 


She said, “It requires a lot more resources, time and nursing, whereas under one roof you can accomplish the same thing for more than one person.”


Pereira-Sabga also sits on the board of the Palliative Care Society of T&T which is set to open a hospice in Caura. Another is expected to open in South.


“So we are getting there,” she said.



Cancer Society has huge responsibility to society


Leading the Cancer Society is a mammoth responsibility, and Pereira-Sabga said she’s unsure whether she can fill Laquis’ shoes.


“I don’t think anybody can fill Dr Laquis’ shoes and that’s the honest truth. I tell him that all the time. He knows that and he definitely is somebody I admire a lot.


“I think the way he has pioneered Cancer Society, his thought processes and his’s just remarkable.”


She said she still sees Laquis as her chairman and she’s not sure she’s ready “to hold on to those reins.”


She is trying but said it was a mammoth responsibility.


The Cancer Society is an important organisation and is pivotal in the country. Over the years, she said the society led a pioneering role in trying to educate people through its mobile clinics, advertisements and outreach programmes. 


The Cancer Society does pap smears, breast exams, mammography and ultrasounds.


Pereira-Sabga thinks the biggest challenge at the Cancer Society is reaching everyone and getting them to understand clearly what the guidelines are for screening and to encourage them to be screened and get educated. 


She said, “I think that as we see all of the incidences of cancer and certainly trying to reach the entire population into the far-reaching areas of Trinidad, I think that our responsibility to society is huge.”



Obstacles along the way


“We screen patients and our mantra is through education we hope that there is an element of prevention and early detection,” she said.


The society is now at a transition road where it’s trying to update to electronic records, to ensure 100 per cent screening “accurately and appropriately” and that there is an element of follow-through in patients who have been screened. 


Pereira-Sabga said they can then tell patients their results and the follow-up steps that are necessary.


She said, “It sounds quite simple, but when you have it in real life it is a mammoth task, considering sometimes you have patients that cannot be reached. They come in for some sort of screening investigation...then you can’t get them or they don’t come back in.


“You have lots of little obstacles along the way and as an organisation we have to overcome them because as a team at Cancer Society we take huge pride in what we do.”


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