In the summer of 2017, Allison Burkett’s sister, Karen “Dale” Burkett, who was living in Burkett’s native country of Jamaica, began having unexplained seizures.
Dale was admitted to St. Ann’s Bay Regional Hospital for analysis, where her doctors recommended a CT scan. But there was a problem: St. Ann’s didn’t have a CT scanner. “That was my first awareness of, oh, it’s not as simple as going to the radiology department,” says Allison, who has lived in the United States since college.
In fact, getting her sister the CT scan required to make a proper diagnosis would turn out to be much more complicated. The closest medical facility with a CT scanner to St. Ann’s is a private facility twenty minutes away, and those in need of a scan are required to pay for the service before an appointment is even scheduled.
“We were not on the island at the time, so we had to get friends and family to pay for it, bring the receipt back to the hospital, and then they schedule an appointment,” says Allison. “Then there was a wait for an available ambulance.”
The CT scan did not pinpoint the cause of Dale’s illness, and she continued to cycle in and out of the hospital with unexplained seizures. Suspecting a neurological cause and wanting answers, Allison requested an MRI for her sister.
Obtaining an MRI proved even more difficult. After paying upfront for the service and providing proof of payment, it took four tries to actually get Dale there. The first attempt Dale wasn’t stable enough to take on the two-hour journey to the closest private facility with an MRI. Two more attempts were cancelled at the last minute due to unspecified issues with ambulances, which are also in short supply on the island. Eventually, Dale’s family wound up paying the Jamaican Red Cross to use their ambulance to take Dale to the imaging center.
“After she had the MRI done and they read results, they still could not find anything that would speak to why she was having these seizures,” says Allison. “At one point they said, ‘OK we have done enough for her, we don’t know what else to do. You may want to have her see a neurologist.”
Like most Caribbean Islands, Jamaica has a limited number of medical specialists. In fact, for a population of 2.9 million, Jamaica has only four neurologists on the island. In the end, Dale’s family was unable to get her to a neurologist. Some weren’t taking new patients, paperwork proceeded slowly, and her condition continued to deteriorate, making another long journey impossible.
“The morning of September 7, my mother got a call in the wee hours of the morning asking her to come to the hospital,” says Allison. “They wouldn’t tell her what was going on. When she went my sister was already gone. They said she had another seizure and they couldn’t control what was going on.”
“People ask, ‘So what was her cause of death?’” continues Allison. “The medical certificate from the hospital lists four things: aspiration pneumonia, stroke, central nervous system vasculitis, and deep vein thrombosis. We did a private autopsy, and they did find a tumor which went undiagnosed by the hospital. To me and to others it makes more sense that maybe that was what was triggering these seizures, but we will never know.”
After a period of mourning, Allison began to think about how she could help. “Being a Rotarian here in the US, I have been exposed to what’s possible in the philanthropy work that we do through Rotary,” she says, “so I said, ‘Well, I have to do something about this. This is just not acceptable.”
“As you can imagine, Jamaica is a third world country,” continues Allison, remembering the difficulty and expense of scheduling that first CT scan. “Most patients can’t afford to pay for these services up front. What happens is they do without.” Without the requisite diagnostic tools, it’s challenging for doctors to diagnose and treat illnesses. Patients stay in the hospital longer than they need to, and hospitals become overcrowded. Eventually those who take too long to be diagnosed – like Dale – do not survive.
Founded officially on the one-year anniversary of her passing, the Karen Dale foundation seeks to impact Jamaica’s health system in real and practical ways. Allison’s primary goal is to purchase a CT scanner for St. Ann’s Bay Regional Hospital. A need assessment at the hospital also helped identify a list of other medical equipment that would help improve patient treatment at St. Ann’s: ECG machines, vital signs monitors, heavy duty blood pressure machines, patient monitors, electrosurgical units and pulse oximeters. Allison is open to different ways of acquiring this medical equipment whether that means raising funds to purchase it, soliciting donations or discounts from medical suppliers, or partnering with other organizations doing similar work.
“I hope that through the Karen Dale foundation we’ll be able to make an impact starting with the St. Ann’s Bay Regional Hospital and hopefully expanding this to other hospitals in Jamaica and then eventually to other islands,” says Allison. “When you start sharing the story with others, you realize our story is not unique. Other people have gone through similar stories both in Jamaica and other Caribbean Islands as well.”
And Alison is clear: it’s a problem that one day could impact you. “I think a lot of people when they think of hardships in the Caribbean, they don’t really think of Jamaica because the images you see are glamorous beaches and resorts,” she says, “but what people don’t understand is that St. Ann’s Bay Regional Hospital is the closest hospital to Ocho Rios, one of the major tourist areas on the North coast of Jamaica. If you are on vacation there and something were to happen to you and you needed to go to the hospital, this is the hospital you would be admitted to, and if you needed a CT scan, you would be going through the same experience as a citizen of Jamaica. You could go on vacation and have an injury, and next thing you know, you’re living this story.”
On September 14, The Karen Dale Foundation is holding a Caribbean Gala at the Levine Senior Center in Matthews. The event will feature live entertainment, a silent auction, giveaways and island cuisine. Allison hopes the Gala will become an annual event to raise funds and awareness for the Karen Dale Foundation.
“This is very personal,” says Allison. “I tear up sometimes just talking about it. Before this happened, I was always passionate about philanthropy work and giving back, but this particular foundation is very personal to me because it allows me to help the community that I grew up in.”
To learn more about the Karen Dale Foundation, donate, volunteer or purchase tickets to the Caribbean Gala, visit www.karendalefoundation.org/.