What is it like to be Jamell Ollivierre? I can’t answer that question, of course—certainly we can’t really know what it’s like to be anyone other than who we are—though the outlines are there. I met with him one morning at the patio of Keegan’s in Lower Bay, just off the beach, the waves rolling in and out in the background. He’s soft spoken, but certainly not meek. You can see he’s thinking big thoughts, if not necessarily feeling the need to say all of them out loud.
Jamell is a child of the island, to be sure, though ironically not comfortable on the sea that surrounds it. While many students take the ferry every day to attend high school on St. Vincent, he opted to stay with an uncle through the week. Otherwise, sea sickness would have put an end to an education.
That’s not a barrier to higher learning that most of the world can associate with— sea sickness—though it was the first of many that are unique to young people in the region. In can be a difficult path in all kinds of ways. “I wasn’t like the other kids,” he says trailing off as he does. It’s less a statement of fact than an admission of his predicament—a nod to the arc of his life, of who he is and who he has been, growing up in Lower Bay.
“It was humbling,” he says, if able to admit the joys as well. As we walk through Lower Bay he points out where he played soccer with cousins and neighbourhood kids in a stand of trees just in from the rocky part of the beach.
It was idyllic in a way, though e
ven from when he was very young, Jamell knew he wanted something more. He wanted to learn about science, healing, and systems. He wanted to become a doctor. “Some of my classmates, when I told them, a lot of them used to laugh,” he says. He gets it. There has never been a primary-care doctor from Bequia, just as there has never been an astronaut from Tibet. It’s not impossible. It just hasn’t happened and, in its way, can seem a bit distant. “Just the thought and the idea of becoming a doctor seems silly to most people,” he says. “But it wasn’t to me.”
What’s it like to be Jamell Ollivierre? That comment—"but it wasn’t to me”—is a good hint. He saw a breadth of possibility that others maybe didn't. He saw things in himself that others couldn't visualize in themselves. He wasn't like the other kids.
Jamell attended Bequia Anglican Primary, then St. Vincent Grammar School, then college and now university. He attributes much of what he’s accomplished to the support of his family and his mother in particular. She pushed him into positions of leadership, even if that’s not the word she would use. “My mom, she encouraged me to hang out with teenage guys that play football. To hang out with them, encourage them, help them with their homework, ‘so they can see you as an influence.’” He is an athlete, and has competed regionally. He also has long been a volunteer with the Red Cross, recently as part of the executive committee. One of the tasks he organizes is flood monitoring in a village on St. Vincent. After heavy rains, he goes door to door, taking stock. Did the water come into your house? Is there any erosion? Are your foundations intact? He writes up what he finds and reports back to the Red Cross. Those reports help inform the level and type of response.
It’s not the kind of work that garners much thanks or even notice, but he has a lot to give, and he regularly gives it. “I must admit I’m a sore loser,” he admits when pressed. “I like sticking to what I want, I like digging into it. That’s what influences me to continue.” He’s currently in his second year of medical school at the American University of St. Vincent. That in itself is an achievement, though he knows better than anyone that it’s one point in a much longer journey, the completion of which remains anything but certain.
“A majority of the students live close to the school, but I live far from the school. So getting to school is troublesome.” He gets up early each morning, goes to sleep late each night. The days are long, but he feels everything is worth every effort he's able to give. It's interesting, for one, and pathology, in particular, has peaked his interest. “It helps to understand how different diseases can affect the system,” he says. “How to look and how to understand how the body is effected by pathogens … it helps you to understand how fragile the human body is.” (In reference to the ratio of time spent to lessons learns, he says, “it’s very high yield.”)
Yes, he’s not like other kids, even if that's perhaps true in varying degrees for all of us. “I know what I have to do. I know what I need to do to make my dreams become reality. So that’s what I’m doing.” In contrast, he admits “a lot of people on the island who are my age, they limit themselves. A lot of them get into drugs, smoke, drink … they limit their sight or their insights. And I didn't want to limit myself.”
There are two more years of medical school, then specializations, rotations, exams, and fundraising to support it all. He’d like to do at least some of his training out of country, so there will be visa applications, travel and living expenses as well. “To be honest," he says, "the St. Vincent hospital [Milton Cato Memorial] is not well equipped. It’s become very limited in what they can teach.” He’s well aware of the complexities of studying abroad will bring. “I need to think three steps ahead.” He's able to do that, in part, thanks to the support of two significant donors.
I ask him how he’d like to people to think of him. Most people would demur at that kind of question, and for a moment it seems that he will as well. But then he decides not to. “When people look at me, I’d like them to think that this guy came from this small island, so many obstacles before him, and he overcame every single one of them to achieve what he could achieve, and come back and help to pull others up with him. That’s what I really hope to achieve.”
He'd like to become a doctor from Bequia, practicing on Bequia, in part because of what it will say to other young people who are like him. To date, as Jamell notes, Bequia imports doctors. He will become the first primary-care physician from Bequia who practices on Bequia—someone from the island, who has lived the island experience, and who provides care for islanders. Once there's a first, the door will have been opened for the second and the third, in part because of the message that kind of achievement sends: that it's ok to think bigger thoughts, and to hold larger aspirations.