WATCHING THE FINAL ROUND

by Odeen Ishmael - (First published on March 22, 1997)

On December 10 last year Comrade Cheddi and I had returned to Miami from Bolivia where we attended the hemispheric Summit on Sustainable Development. He was billed to address the Miami Conference on the Caribbean and he took the opportunity to speak to a gathering of Guyanese there two evenings after he arrived. I was given the pleasurable task of introducing him to his audience and I did so by referring to him as "His Excellency President Cheddi Jagan". In taking the microphone he admonished me for referring to him as "His Excellency" and told me in the hearing of the audience, "All through the years you and everyone else know me as Comrade Cheddi. I don't like this "His Excellency" thing. I prefer to be called Comrade Cheddi."

I was in Guyana when Comrade Cheddi suffered the heart attack. I had returned home to represent Guyana at the Sixth Meeting of the FTAA Working Group on the Smaller Economies where we presented the paper on the Regional Integration Fund (RIF), an initiative of Comrade Cheddi which had already won endorsement from the countries of CARICOM and Central America. Comrade Cheddi delivered the feature address to open the meeting on Thursday, February 13. It was his last public engagement, and I had the distinct privilege of introducing him to his final international audience. Just before he left the meeting, he told me to meet him on Monday morning at his office to discuss "a few things" before my return to Washington.

I had telephoned Comrade Janet two days before at her office at the Mirror. She did not know then that I was in Guyana, and when I explained that I had come in for the FTAA meeting, she sounded very excited and said that she would see me on Saturday morning at Freedom House where "all the comrades" would be.

I arrived at Freedom House at nine o'clock on the morning of Saturday, February 15, and was greeted with the news that Comrade Cheddi had suffered a heart attack during the night. No one knew how serious it was, but he was being examined at the Georgetown Hospital. However, the US Government would be sending a Medivac plane to fly him to the USA for further tests and treatment.

I immediately contacted my residence in Washington and asked my wife to alert the Embassy personnel in order that the necessary logistics for the Comrade Cheddi's arrival be put in motion.

Later that afternoon, Comrade Cheddi was flown out first to Panama where he would stop over and would proceed on Sunday to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

He arrived at Andrews Air Force Base and was whisked away by helicopter to the hospital. The Air Force Base is located just on the south eastern outer edge of the Washington Metropolitan Area and is just about 15 miles by road from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center which is within the Washington, D.C. city limits on Georgia Avenue.

On the morning of February 17 (Monday), Minister of Information Moses Nagamootoo announced that during the previous evening Comrade Cheddi had an angioplasty to clear a blocked artery. I decided that I was no longer going to follow my original travel itinerary, and that afternoon I managed to get a seat on a BWIA flight to New York. The flight departed at half past four, but due to a long delay during a stop over in Port of Spain and later in Antigua, it did not arrive in New York until half past three on Tuesday morning. There was no flight to Washington at that time so I sat at the airport until six o'clock in the company of Brentnol Evans, our Consul General in New York who had come there since eleven o'clock the previous evening to meet me. I did, however, get the first Trans World Express flight at seven o'clock and 90 minutes later I was home.

At ten o'clock my wife Evangeline and I walked into the hospital. The Embassy had alerted the hospital officials there that we were on our way and, immediately on arrival, we were sent to the Coronary Ward (Ward 40) where Comrade Cheddi was hospitalised. The US Secret Service detail greeted us and told us that Comrade Cheddi was under intensive care. This was verified by Cheddi Jagan (Jnr.) and his wife Nadia who were also there. Unfortunately, visitors were limited to immediate family members at that time and so I could not get to see him.

What I did learn was that Comrade Janet and her children, Nadira and Cheddi and daughter-in-law Nadia were taking turns to sit outside the room. At that time, both Comrade Janet and Nadira were resting in the Eisenhower suite on the seventh floor.

Nadira had flown in from Canada on Saturday, March 15, and she stayed with my family until the following day when her father arrived at the hospital.

I was informed then that Comrade Cheddi's heart function was being assisted by a cardiac pump and that a respirator was helping him to breathe, but because he had a tube down his throat he could not speak. But he was fully conscious and aware of his condition and from time to time he would use a felt pen to write short notes on sheets of printing paper. The doctors attending him said that his condition was serious but this was not unusual considering he had an angioplasty just two evenings before.

I returned to the hospital every day. The general practice was for me to visit Comrade Janet in the Eisenhower suite on the top floor from about nine o'clock in the morning. She would be just off from her shift of keeping watch outside Comrade Cheddi's room and she would brief me on his medical condition. She told me that from time to time she made contact with Dr. Roger Luncheon, Head of the Presidential Secretariat, to also brief him on the situation. However, within a few days I began handling the medical bulletins which were based on my conversations with the doctors and with Comrade Janet. At no time was anything hidden away when the reports were prepared. We could not speculate; we had to give what the doctors were telling us.

From time to time I went to Ward 40 to meet with Comrade Janet. We met in a nearby lounge which had comfortable sofas. Usually, relatives of other patients in the ward would be seen sleeping there. On one occasion when I went to Ward 40 to see her, after I could not find her in the suite, I found her taking a nap there while Nadira was keeping the watch outside of Comrade Cheddi's room.

Comrade Janet and I talked about many matters -- the programme of the PPP/Civic administration, the history of the PPP, the ideas of Comrade Cheddi, her own childhood days, Comrade Cheddi's hobbies. But we also discussed with optimism Comrade Cheddi's eventual recovery from this medical setback he was experiencing. We talked about the notes that he was writing -- notes which indicated the alertness of the mind of this great man. (Later when he was placed on heavier sedation, he could no longer write).

I did see some of the short notes he wrote. I guess these, which are in Comrade Janet's possession, will be lasting mementos for her and her family, but at the same time they give testimony to the fact that while he was suffering seriously, he had his mind firmly set on the welfare of his country and also of the world at large. One of these notes was a little joke he usually shared with Comrade Janet, while in another he wrote that he would like to talk with the Canadian Prime Minister whom he referred to as "my good friend Jean Chretien". He wrote also that his throat was itching, no doubt caused by the respirator tube.

While all this was happening, the Embassy and my residence were bombarded with telephone calls from Guyanese from all parts of the world, including Guyana itself, to get updates on the condition of the President. At first, we began making a list of those who called, but after a few days had passed we found this was impossible to maintain, since they were so numerous. But we did manage very early to set up our information network, and through the Guyana News and Information Page on the Internet, my son Safraz updated the world with the latest information of Comrade Cheddi's medical situation. At my residence, my wife Evangeline and daughter Nadeeza fielded phone calls throughout the day and late into the night from Guyanese nationals in the USA and Canada. On a daily basis I was also interviewed by the press and radio, including the BBC, which also wanted to keep the world informed.

The offices of the President of Suriname, Prime Minister Patterson of Jamaica and Prime Minister Chretien of Canada and Prime Minister Ramgoolam of Mauritius called every day. A number of Ambassadors also called for regular updates for their governments, and various US State Department officials, who I met almost every day during the period of Comrade Cheddi's illness, expressed their concerns and hoped for his improvement.

The Prime Minister of Canada was very touched by Comrade Cheddi's reference to him in his short note. I had mentioned the reference to his personal assistant who had called the hospital while I was there, and also to Canadian Embassy personnel who telephoned me for updates. Prime Minister Chetrien did eventually speak with Comrade Janet and he wanted to fly specially to Washington to speak with Comrade Cheddi. However, she told him that he was not able to speak because he was on the respirator, but hopefully this would be possible at a later time.

I finally got the opportunity to see Comrade Cheddi on February 24. So far, only his immediate family members were allowed by the doctors to visit him. I arrived at the hospital at half past nine that morning and went to Ward 40 and found Comrade Janet sitting outside the room. At that time the doctors were attending to him and when they left, Comrade Janet said that I should have a look at him. Both of us went into the room and I saw him for the first time. He was hooked up to a number of equipment and the respirator, with a tube down his throat, prevented him from speaking. Comrade Janet told him, "This is Odeen. Do you recognise him?" He looked at me and nodded in the affirmative. She asked him if he was feeling hot, and he shook his head to say he was not. I leaned over and felt his head and his temperature seemed normal. His arms and face looked a bit puffed; Comrade Janet said that the doctors told her that it was because of the amount of liquids he was absorbing.

Comrade Janet spoke with him and mentioned the numerous messages of support that were being received. I also told him of the messages from all over the world that we have been getting at the Embassy and that I would have to send "thank you" notes to all of these persons on his behalf. "Do you think I should begin to do that now?" I asked. He nodded in the affirmative. His eyes were bright and there was an eagerness in them as if he was telling us that he wanted to get out from that bed and out of the hospital.

The attending physician, Dr. Jennifer Callagan, came in and did some tests on his heart pressure while we were there. She said that the procedure entailed the pumping of a small amount of liquid into his heart and then the heart response was measured to give the indication of muscle repairs. She told us that with every passing day his chances were improving and that later in the day they would most likely remove the cardiac balloon pump. Over the past few days, the size of the balloon was reduced, she said. Of course, the removal would be a critical moment, since it would determine if they had to put it on again.

Later that afternoon it was removed and was never put back since the heart was able to function without any assistance. However, the respirator was kept on to assist in breathing. There was only one time that the respirator was removed and this was just for a period of 45 minutes on the evening of February 26.

In the course of Comrade Cheddi's hospitalisation, I did get to meet with many members of the medical team assigned to him. The Cardiology department had a team of 23 specialists headed by Dr. Marina Vernalis. They were also assisted by a number of consultants from various other hospitals which included the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. In addition there was a team of nurses and medical technicians who were monitoring his condition round the clock. Dr. Callagan and Dr. Vernalis seemed to be there all the time. I afterwards learned that they shared a room next to Comrade Cheddi's room so that at least one of them could check on him constantly.

I have no doubt that Comrade Cheddi could not have received better medical care and attention anywhere else.

There were visible peaks when we thought that Comrade Cheddi would pull through. On the afternoon of Friday, February 21 he had contracted a fever which rang our alarm bells, but by late evening, he had overcome that problem. That weekend his condition improved so much that he was allowed to see his grandchildren. Nadira had told me a few days before that her husband and children would be flying in from Toronto for the weekend but would be travelling back on Sunday evening (February 23). This they did, but unfortunately their presence in Washington was construed by a section of the Guyanese press to mean that Comrade Cheddi was on his last gasp.

At the same period there were also some rumours circulating that the army was already planning for the state funeral. The irony of it all was that at that very time, I had begun to put contingencies in operation for Comrade Cheddi to recuperate in Florida before returning to Guyana. However, I do not think this was the kind of news that rumour mongers would have liked to spread.

It was at this time Cheddi (Jnr.) returned to Guyana. (He came back to Washington on the evening of March 5).

In all of this Comrade Janet stood out as a beacon of dignity, grace and courage. She never wilted under the stress that the situation presented, and she was the one who continuously inspired us with hope that despite the odds Comrade Cheddi would win this battle. She also showed a great concern for the members of her immediate family by urging them to "get some sleep" while she herself would sit for long hours to keep watch over her husband. Her children, Cheddi and Nadira, daughter-in-law Nadia and son-in-law Mark gave solid support to her. She never broke down under the pressure. The five grandchildren played their part, too, by preparing colourful posters which were then pinned up in Comrade Cheddi's room.

We began to face the inevitable after Monday, March 3 when his lung complications, which had arisen earlier, grew worse. On Tuesday the doctors told me that his situation was very critical and there was little that they could do for him. By this time he was under heavy sedation and was asleep all the time. I returned to the hospital that evening and Dr. Vernalis told me that he was hanging on stubbornly and that the doctors were amazed at his resilience and his determination to survive. "President Jagan is defying the laws of medical science," she told me. Significantly, the doctors and other medical staff in Ward 40 never at any time abandoned their charge, regardless of the negative signs, and stayed with Comrade Cheddi to the end.

Despite the situation, Comrade Janet never surrendered hope. "If the chances are one to a million for survival, Cheddi is that one," she told us.

Wednesday, March 5 came. Comrade Cheddi was still hanging on. His breathing was softer but he continued to fight the claws of death. His blood pressure was fluctuating and we expected him to go at any time. Here was a man never refusing to give up, even in his final hour. Here was a true warrior -- a fighter to the very end.

Around half past four that afternoon I returned to the hospital. Outside his room were Nadira, Mark, two doctors and two nurses talking quietly. Shortly after, Comrade Janet joined us and at about half past five Nadia came in. Cheddi (Jnr.) was expected at Washington National Airport at six o'clock and a member of my staff had volunteered to pick him up and rush him to the hospital.

I looked in on Comrade Cheddi. His eyes were closed and he was breathing quietly. A nurse was checking the monitors in the room and from time to time the doctors would go in to have a look at him. Comrade Janet and Nadira went into the room and held his hands and rubbed his feet for a while.

At about half past six I thought that I should leave the family to be together by themselves for the final moments. I went into the room alone, held Comrade Cheddi's right hand, and looked at him as he continued to breathe quietly while his life ebbed away from him. The flame that lit the torch for freedom and democracy in Guyana was flickering low. Here was the father of our nation, dying in front of me, and I who, from since childhood days, have been nourished with his ideas, could do nothing to save him. I could not help being choked up with emotion as I looked in the living face of Cheddi Jagan for the last time.

I walked away from that room with feet of lead.

I exited the automatic doors of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center into the cold winter night and went home to wait for the telephone call from Mark to tell me that the legendary life was over.

It came just after 12.23 a.m.


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