Samuel Ramsewak

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

For women and men wanting to have children of their own, the joy such parents feel when they hold their babies for the first time is like no other. But imagine the often unbearable disappointment of those who had been previously told that they could not conceive. Many people in Trinidad and Tobago have been spared that pain thanks to the science of in vitro fertilisation (or IVF) and, by extension, Prof. Samuel Ramsewak who pioneered IVF treatment in Trinidad and Tobago. There is, however, much more to Prof. Ramsewak, a doctor of obstetrics and gynaecology, than the man whose expertise resulted in   the first IVF baby, conceived and delivered in the Caribbean. A highly regarded professor at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the St. Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI) where he also serves as Dean, Prof. Ramsewak founded the Gynaecological and Obstetrical Society of Trinidad and Tobago, and is an internationally cited researcher in his field, having made an important contribution to the understanding of the role of the bacterium, Chlamydia trachomatis, in female infertility.

Born in 1951, Prof. Samuel Ramsewak recounts with great affection his early years growing up with his seven siblings in Sangre Grande, Trinidad, where he came to “appreciate what real community living was about.”  His father, Samdeo, was the popular and generous proprietor of “The Atomic Café”, a parlour so named because it had been established in the year that the atomic bomb was dropped. In time and with much hard work, the small business grew into one of the larger establishments in Sangre Grande. Samdeo Ramsewak’s values were instilled in his children through their having to work in the store on weekends and at other busy periods such as holidays. It was through his many interactions with the diverse range of patrons that the young Samuel developed his understanding of human nature. In his own words, working in the shop “allowed me to develop a sense of service and taught me not to force my own opinions and perspectives upon someone else.” These exchanges fostered in him valuable ‘people skills’, which benefited him later on in his work as a doctor, educator and administrator.

Although Samdeo and his wife, Rita expected their children to help out in the shop, they allowed all of them to follow career paths and hobbies of their own choosing. Young Samuel’s interest was captured by the nearby pan yard and, from an early age, he joined the Sangre Grande Cordettes Steel Orchestra, playing on weekends and in the long vacation periods. He competed with them in the National Steel Band Festival, which they won in 1969. In school, Samuel was inclined towards the sciences but his academic path in this direction would not be easy.  After completing his primary education at Guaico Presbyterian School in 1962, Ramsewak sat the Common Entrance examination and passed for the newly opened Hillview College. His teachers at Hillview recognised his aptitude for science.  However, at that time, the college did not offer science subjects at A-level, so Ramsewak was transferred from Hillview to St. Mary’s College in Port-of-Spain. He was placed directly into the Form 4A Special class, skipping Form 3 altogether. He initially struggled with the new level of work presented to him. Moreover, for the family-oriented boy, the transition was made even more difficult because he and his elder brother had to spend their weekdays away from home, boarding in the capital. He credits the then principal, Fr. Pedro Valdez with helping him settle in to life at St. Mary’s College. While it seemed to him that few administrators recognised the importance of dealing with the students on a more personal level, Fr. Valdez took the time to get to know the shy, struggling student and decided that the best way to help him adjust would be to have him repeat Form 4. Prof. Ramsewak remembers that, “At first I felt like a failure, but Fr. Valdez corrected that by not giving up on me. For that, I am forever grateful to him.” Ramsewak would go on to repay Fr. Valdez and St. Mary’s College for their faith in his abilities by returning for one year after graduation to teach the very subjects he had transferred there to learn.

After spending two years starting a career in pharmacy, in 1972, Ramsewak took his first major step towards his career as a doctor by entering the Faculty of Medicine at The University of West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, and he knew right away that he had made the correct choice. It had been three years since he had left school, however, and he admits that he probably studied “too hard” at first. Once he realised he was performing well, he allowed himself to relax and, ultimately, he describes his time in medical school as “a fabulous experience.” He was able to meet people from a variety of backgrounds, each with their own life experiences to share, and he established many lifelong friendships in Jamaica.  He even found time to continue developing his pan-playing skills by performing with the UWI Steelband.

In 1977, Ramsewak graduated with honours in pathology and microbiology and went to Sheffield in England to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology. He was a Commonwealth Research Fellow at the Jessop Hospital for Women, a leading institution for reproductive medicine, and it was there that he did his first work in in vitro fertilisation. Following this, he worked as a registrar at St. Mary’s Hospital in Manchester for one year before returning to Trinidad where he took up the post of Senior Registrar at Mt. Hope Women’s Hospital. His talent for microbiology, as evidenced by the honours he received for his MB BS, merged with his interest in reproductive health, when he wrote his postgraduate thesis on the detection of the bacterium, Chlamydia trachomatis in the fallopian tubes of infertile women and in the fresh tissue of ectopic pregnancies (when the fertilized egg implants itself in the fallopian tubes). Unlike earlier research in this area, which relied heavily on paraffinised specimens, Ramsewak’s study was distinguished by its use of fresh tissue samples, and helped to prove that Chlamydia was the main cause of the scarring that leads to ectopic pregnancy. While Prof. Ramsewak’s thesis is in itself an outstanding accomplishment, his body of work also includes over 50 other articles published in a variety of peer-reviewed journals, relating to obstetrics and gynaecology.

In light of his experience in the field of reproductive health and fertility problems, there is little surprise that he gravitated towards IVF – the process by which an egg is fertilised outside of the womb and then transferred to the uterus of the woman. Once the fertilized egg, or zygote, successfully attaches in the womb, the pregnancy then continues in the same way as a natural conception. Prof. Ramsewak combined his experiences working on IVF at the Jessop Hospital with the knowledge gained through his research to help found an independent fertility clinic in Trinidad. This clinic has since been credited with the Caribbean’s first IVF baby and its first ICSI baby. ICSI is a form of IVF in which a single sperm is chosen to fertilise an egg. Through Ramsewak’s work bringing IVF treatment to Trinidad and Tobago, many women and men confronted with the challenges of infertility now have the chance to start families of their own.

Whether it was for his academic research, his work with IVF, or his career as an educator, in 1998, one year after the delivery of Trinidad’s first IVF baby, Prof. Ramsewak was awarded the Chaconia Medal (Silver) for his contribution to the field of medicine. Despite being distinguished by a national award, Ramsewak considers his research publications and his experiences teaching obstetrics and gynaecology at UWI as the most significant achievements of his career. In fact, one of the reasons he returned from England was that he wanted to teach at UWI’s Medical School and he notes that he finds great happiness in “seeing people grow in front of you and knowing that you were able to facilitate that process.” Prof. Ramsewak believes that his facility with lecturing developed during his early experiences teaching at St. Mary’s College. He also recalls his university days where students would teach one another, and he is convinced that “the best way to know whether one really understood something is to teach it to one’s fellow students.”

Prof. Ramsewak transitioned from teaching into administration when he was invited to head UWI’s Department of Clinical Surgical Sciences.  He went on to serve as Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences and, in 2007, he was appointed to his current position of Dean. Ramsewak embraced the move from teaching to administration because he saw it as an opportunity “to have a positive impact on the quality of teaching in the medical sciences, making it more student-friendly and agile.” He certainly accomplished a great deal to be proud of as Dean and it was under his tenure that the faculty became the first in the Caribbean to be accredited for a period of five years, by the Caribbean Accreditation Authority for Education in Medicine and other Health Professions (CAAM-HP).

When asked if he would recommend a career in the sciences to young people, Ramsewak is enthusiastic in his endorsement. In his view, “There is so much that one can accomplish for the benefit of others as well as for one’s personal satisfaction.” But he cautions that, “It is a very demanding arena and students must be passionate and consider the work required of them as the ‘worship’ in their lives.” His own experiences reflect a very rewarding career, enabling him to impact many lives through his work as a medical practitioner, a researcher and an educator. However, he does warn young people to resist as much as possible the pressure to rush through qualifications to get onto the job market. Instead, he advises that they “have the confidence and courage to take the time to ground themselves and develop a clearer sense of what they are passionate about before settling on a career path.”

Despite the demands of work, Prof. Ramsewak still ensures he has free time to spend with Sherry, his wife of 34 years and his daughter, Shivaa, who is currently following in his footsteps in studying medicine. He enjoys simple pleasures – cooking at home, outdoor activities like golf and, of course, indulging his fondness for steelpan music. Sadly, he no longer plays but he does keep a tenor pan close to his desk in his home study, so he can reminisce on some of the most pleasurable times in his life and on his youth as a panman with the Cordettes and the UWI Steelband.