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The privilege of service

Monday, February 22, 2016
Dr Robert Lee learned what he needed to know about handling epidemics from making mas with Minshall.

My name is Robert Alexander Kendal Lee and I fought Ebola in Liberia.

I am fifth-generation Trinidadian, descended from people who arrived from Canton, a small town outside Paris and either Northern Ireland or Scotland in the 1800s. One of my great grandfathers had five wives. I am descended from the half-Chinese, half-Scottish (or Northern Irish) wife. 

Medicine has been the family trade for three generations. My mother’s father, Dr Joseph Tsoi-a-Sue trained at Guy’s Hospital in the 1920s. My father’s father, Alexander David Lee, a cocoa merchant, had no formal education, but [was] determined all his sons would be university-educated. He bought a De Verteuil family house on Frederick Street and installed his four sons in the first multi-practice building in Trinidad. The Lee Building was finally demolished last year.  I went to medical school in Edinburgh at 18 and qualified at 22. 

My sixth form class at St Mary’s College was outstanding.  Sixteen of us are medics. And even the class dumbo eventually ended up running an oil company and made  more money than most of us. 

What happens when we die? We rot.

My parents mounted Willie Chen’s first exhibition at the newly-opened Hilton Hotel in 1963. They were the uncredited “angels” that helped Derek Walcott establish the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in their first home in the basement of the Bretton Hall, owned by my family. Vidia Naipaul set the opening of Guerrillas in our beach house in Salibia. Dad painted and played piano with Boscoe Holder and wrote a cookbook with Errol Barrow, Privilege, which still yields a couple of pounds a year in royalties.

In 1989, Farley Cleghorn, a young doctor, described visiting patients in outbuildings, tombs and under houses, and being shot at due to the stigma surrounding Aids. Together we set up the first integrated HIV services at the Queen’s Park Counseling Center at the former Kiernahan house around the Savannah. I joined Carec in 2000.

I volunteered to work in Atlanta after [Hurricane] Katrina. My preparation for working in emergencies can be directly linked to my experiences of making mas with Minshall. It’s the same thing: mass confusion, poor communication, time-sensitive deadlines, rubbish rumours, a combination of technically excellent individuals and well-meaning but hopeless volunteers, major thiefing and so on.  

I felt I had to volunteer to work for the WHO in the Ebola outbreak. It is the reverse side of the coin of entitlement. Though it was major stress, I never felt more alive and productive.

I have a video clip of villagers singing a hymn to greet a woman who survived Ebola. It shall be sung at my funeral (along with Maggie May by Rod Stewart): “He didn’t have to do it, but he did/ He didn’t have to do it, but he did/ He woke me up this morning/ And sent me on my way/ He didn’t have to do it, but he did.

A close and dear friend asked me what I wanted from my life and, when I answered, ‘To be amused until death’, his face fell. He had hoped I would say I wanted to be happy. I guess I should have said happy but I would really have meant loved, but can’t say that. 

I really resent dimwits who inflict their beliefs on others. It’s the only time I admit to being Catholic, when they come with their sorry-assed loser spiels. Once I turned the hose on them. 

I went to Beijing in 1984 [for] the 35th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution and stayed six months. I had always been curious to know what it would be like to not be a minority—but the Chinese could see I was a hua chiao—an ‘Overseas Chinese’. I belonged nowhere and everywhere but I belonged to those who didn’t belong anywhere either. I realised how Trinidadian I was.

A Trini can network with and put people at ease very quickly. Using humour and politeness as an entrée.

We’re breeding a race of dragons, young people who do not expect to live beyond the age of 25 and who are angry at the system. And I don’t think we can stuff that back into the bottle.

Trinidad & Tobago is the only place I feel I belong. I don’t feel I belong to everybody—elitist, privileged, overeducated—but I know how to use it. I know how to sweet-talk and when to pull rank on people.
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