Nine years ago, Dr. Narendra Chetram Singh was visiting his home country of Guyana and took a tour of the neonatal intensive care unit at one of the hospitals.
The chief of staff at Humber River Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at McMaster University was “surprised and taken aback” by what he saw — or more specifically, what he didn’t.
“They really didn’t have very basic equipment,” he recalled of the unit mere feet away from where he was born. “Thirty to 40 babies were dying a month. The doctors and nurses were doing the best with what they had.”
The unit lacked incubators, intravenous pumps, and heart and oxygen monitors.
“(Babies) were dying because of prematurity, or they died from infection,” he said.
Singh, along with his pediatrician wife, Dr. Shirley Sit, founded Guyana Help the Kids (GHTK) in 2009 as a way to combat neonatal and infant mortality rates in the country.
Along with raising funds for essential equipment, the duo also established a pediatric residency program and a neonatal nursing program, in collaboration with Canadian universities to send staff down to Guyana to train pediatricians and nurses. To date, 10 Guyanese pediatricians and more than 50 NICU nurses have been trained.
The handwashing protocol he developed saw the infant mortality rate drop 20 per cent in GHTK’s first year, and the infant mortality rate in Guyana’s largest hospital — Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation — decreased by about 40 per cent overall that year. GHTK’s programs have now expanded to four other Guyanese hospitals.
Singh was one of 45 Canadians recognized for their “excellence, courage or exceptional dedication to service” by Governor General David Johnston during a ceremony in London, Ont. Thursday, March 9.
For his work with GHTK, Singh received the Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division).
“We are all proud of the amazing work Dr. Singh, and many of his colleagues at Humber, do, not just in our hospital every day but beyond into the local and global communities,” Barb Collins, Humber River president and CEO, said in a release. “In Dr. Singh’s case, his leadership has seen the neonatal and infant mortality in his birth country of Guyana drop dramatically, saving the lives of hundreds of babies every year.”
Singh was humble in his acceptance, noting it felt “nice” to be recognized.
“Of all the things I’ve done, I enjoy (GHTK) the most,” he said. “It’s really a team approach.”
The goal is to eventually hand over GHTK to the Guyanese government while he takes on a supervisory role, Singh said.
Humber’s former chief of pediatrics didn’t always have his sights set on child health.
“I wanted to do surgery when I was younger because it sounded sexy,” he joked.
He went on to do resident training in London, Ont., followed by fellowships at The Hospital for Sick Children and in Pittsburg. He has also worked as a pediatric intensivist at a McAllen, Texas for the past 20 years, splitting his time between Toronto and the Lone Star State.