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Coronavirus: A son’s letter to his Windrush Generation mother who helped build the NHS

PUBLISHED: 14:40 11 May 2020 | UPDATED: 14:42 11 May 2020

Millicent Kelly, pictured on the left, looking at the camera, came to England in 1953 and qualified as a nurse. Picture: Tony Kelly

Millicent Kelly, pictured on the left, looking at the camera, came to England in 1953 and qualified as a nurse. Picture: Tony Kelly

Tony Kelly

Millicent Kelly arrived in Britain in 1953 as part of the Windrush Generation and she and her two sisters helped build the NHS. She passed away in 2007 but here her son Tony writes to tell her about the NHS’s greatest medical challenge.

Millicent Kelly is pictured on the right and Aldyth Richards is on the left. Picture: Tony KellyMillicent Kelly is pictured on the right and Aldyth Richards is on the left. Picture: Tony Kelly

Dear Mum

You left us and this earthly life on August 18, 2007 and before that so did your older sister Aldyth Richards, who I affectionately called Aunt Tit.

Your youngest sister Aunt Yvonne is trying to make sense of what is happening in the year 2020.

The world is going through some perilous times due to something called Coronavirus or Covid-19 which apparently originated in China.

You are probably wondering what I am referring to, knowing how intent you always were on increasing your knowledge of medical/health related matters and have every right to seek clarification. That will be explained later.

In 1948 Britain’s National Health Service was formed and not long after Aunt Tit in 1952, you in 1953 and Aunt Yvonne in 1957, as three sisters from Bath, St Thomas, Jamaica answered the call of what was then referred to as the Mother Country to come and train as nurses in London.

Without a doubt you were trailblazers who paved the way for others to follow in your footsteps and so many have indeed done so. You all qualified as State Registered Nurses (SRN) and worked at the Hackney Hospital and Mile End Hospital, as well as Netherene Hospital in south London (now Surrey).

With your thirst for knowledge you also became a State Certified Midwife (SCM) and made sure to mention that whenever I was not devoting enough time to my educational studies.

Tony Kelly as a boy. Picture: Tony KellyTony Kelly as a boy. Picture: Tony Kelly

You explained the difference between a SRN and a State Enrolled Nurse (SEN).

I cannot forget one of the experiences that you shared of a sick white patient on a hospital bed shouting “take your black hands off me” whilst you were caring for her and you continued the treatment even after such a racist outburst.

“The roots of education are bitter but the fruit is sweet” readily springs to mind as your mother, my grandmother, Granny would say to me - “Go tek yuh book” or “hard work neva kill anyone” since I wanted to play or, to use a Jamaican saying, “ramp” outside with others.

I always remember as a child leaving you behind in England to travel on the Ascania ship in the early sixties for three weeks at sea with my late Aunt Vie and my first cousin Heather, then only 10 months old, from Southampton docks to your homeland Jamaica.

Most of my formative years were spent being raised in Whitehall, St Thomas by my grandmother and great aunt Mrs Ina Watson, who was affectionately called Sista. Such happy memories.

Now back to the COVID-19 a respiratory disease affecting the lungs named after the year it was discovered, ie December 2019.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it a pandemic with nearly two million people infected and several thousand having died since the start of the year.

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There has been an urgent call for retired healthcare professionals to join the fight as volunteers in an effort to assist the over-stretched NHS staff cope with this terrible disease which for many has proved fatal.

The British press did a major campaign to alert the nearly 68 million people to the serious threat associated with this highly contagious disease and the need to wash our hands regularly, social distance, shield the elderly and others with underlying health conditions by means of quarantine and everyone staying indoors.

Interestingly not a single Black and minority ethnic (BAME) health worker was featured in any of the national newspapers during that campaign and understandably it caused a huge outcry from the public on social media.

The racism of your time is still apparent and although not as blatant as back then, remains subtle since the powers that be continue to marginalise, dismiss and downplay the achievements of black healthcare professionals like you having contributed immensely to the National Health Service.

Many people are dressed like Batman and Robin, Spider-Man or Phantom in face masks, eye goggles and even gloves (apparently the latter is ineffective) as fear grips the entire nation with make-shift morgues in abundance due to the high number of people dying daily.

To cough sends shivers down the spines of those nearby as everyone becomes suspicious as to whether that person is contagious. Even clearing ones throat in public makes for some weird looks from strangers.

You surely would express your concerns regarding the advice being given now about hygiene standards as those were part of your Jamaican heritage, upbringing and every day way of life. So Britain has come full circle in that regard.

The proverbial saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” seems apt.

In large cities huge entertainment venues are being converted into hospitals all named Nightingale after Florence.

There is no creativity of including the well known Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole whose statue was unveiled on June 30, 2016 opposite the Houses of Parliament in the grounds of St Thomas’ hospital where Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, was treated after having caught the virus.

You would be the first to question why none of these makeshift hospitals catering for this pandemic as a mark of respect were not named after Mary Seacole, considering all that she accomplished as a nurse during the Crimean war of 1853 to 1856.

Your words would be “what a crying shame on Britain’s inwardly looking approach”.

I won’t bore you with the current statistics of Black and minority ethnic medical staff in the NHS.

But rest assured it is much higher than in the 1950s when you and your siblings embarked on that epic adventure from Jamaica to play your part.

Yours and their dedication, commitment and unstinting service will always be remembered and not be erased in to oblivion nor should the current BAME healthcare professionals, some of whom have paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives whilst caring for the sick.

Yours

Tony

Tony Kelly is a Diabetes Ambassador and the diabetes patient lead for NHS Birmingham and Solihull Clinical Commissioning Group.


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