Today’s Person of the Year: Mental Health Foundation director Eileen Healy

POSTED: 12/30/11 12:02 PM

“Treat patients as long as possible in their own environment”

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – She had the option in 2005 to stay home on sick leave with full pay until her pension, but instead our Person of the Year chose to become involved with the Mental Health foundation of which she is now the director. Eileen Healy has two more years to go until her pension in early 2014, but she is committed to her cause – offering quality mental healthcare. “I am not doing this for myself,” she says modestly. “My point of departure has always been: whom are we doing this for? Our patients.”
The Sector Health Care established a psychiatric care unit at thirteen years ago, in 1998. It offered basic psychiatric care to the population of St. Maarten, Saba and Statia. Three years later, Jorien Wuite established the Mental Health Foundation. It would take another four years before the foundation’s path crossed that of Eileen Healy.
“I came to St. Maarten in August of 1995,” Healy recalls. “A month later the island was hit by Hurricane Luis. Many elderly people lost their homes and the need for geriatric care became immediately clear. It was difficult to help these people, because there was no experienced staff available.”
Before her arrival in St. Maarten, Healy worked in The Hague in psycho-geriatric care and revalidation, and in addiction-care. She started working for the White and Yellow Cross. “We had eleven psychiatric patients at the time, but the staff was not prepared for them.”
In 2005, Healy fell ill, and the White and Yellow Cross offered her to stay home on full pay until her pension. “In that same year the Mental Health Foundation received a start-up subsidy from the government. I offered my services there and thought that I would transfer the work to someone else after two years.”
That is not what happened. “From the start there was a business plan for adequate psychiatric care. I wrote terms of reference for a clinic with admission facilities and for a clinic with assisted living,” Healy says. She started shopping around to finance the project. The AWBZ (a fund that finances special healthcare expenses) only wanted to assist with a loan, and a request to the government to make land available turned into a long process without a solution.
“But then there came pressure from the government to diminish the number of patients we were flying out. In 2007 we had a budget to fly 15 patients out but by the end of the year we had handled 30 patients.”
“Flying out” patients refers to psychiatric patients who went to the Capriles clinic in Curacao for treatment. “In 2008 the numbers went down a bit – we flew out 20 patients. But on an annual basis we deal with between fifty and sixty crisis situations.”
The government’s need to cut down on the cost for flying patients to Curacao combined with the foundation’s desire to treat its patients in their own environment fueled the search for a solution.
Sylvia’s Hotel in Cay Hill came up for sale. “With hindsight it was quite expensive,” Healy says. “But the location is good and the lay-out of the buildings as well.”
The foundation financed the purchase with a mortgage from the Windward Islands Bank. “We started quite early with setting up a good administration and with accountants-control,” Healy says. “We finally obtained the mortgage with a guarantee from the government and from the AWBZ. The mortgage charges are part of our budget.”
In December of last year work on the old hotel started. After a delay in January due to building permit requirements, the renovation took off in February; the project was completed by august. That month the administration moved from the L.B. Scott Road to its new location and a month later the day care facility followed; in October the first patients were admitted. While all this was taking place, the organization expanded explosively. We started the year with a staff of eighteen and we now have 38 staff members,” Healy says.
The MHF-director is flattered with her nomination for Today’s Person of the Year, but she is quick to remind us that there are others playing their part as well. “On my own I am not able to pull this off. I have to thank my staff, but also our board that operates based on the Corporate Governance Code.”
The foundation’s clinic is an important facility for the island, though Healy says that there is no need to stigmatize clients that frequent it. “We have currently 500 psychiatric patients on the island, but most of them are working. I want to commend the companies for keeping them on the payroll and for taking their problems into account.”
Treating psychiatric patients in their own environment is still the best option, Healy says. “We visit about sixty families who have someone in their care with psychiatric problems, and if ten of them experience difficulties it is a lot. One of my most important points of departure is to treat patients as long as possible in their own environment. That is not only cheaper, it is also more effective. I am not in favor of creating large buildings or institution to lock up people. Sometimes that is necessary, but first we must do everything possible to find solutions at home. Families are prepared to do a lot for their loved ones, but they need professional support.”
The Mental Health Foundation has informal contacts with the St. Maarten Medical Center and with the White and Yellow Cross. Healy is looking forward to cooperation with Turning Point. “Health care in St. Maarten is still fragmented. I think it is time for the government to impose a cooperation model. Psychiatric care functions under modern and transparent management. Such cooperation will have to take shape on board-level, based on the Corporate Governance Code.”
Looking towards the future, Healy says that the foundation plans to adjust its charter next year to allow for the establishment of a three-headed management team with a financial director, a medical director and a general director. All these changes will follow the rules laid down in the Corporate Governance Code. When that process is completed, our Person of the Year will be nearing her retirement. “After my 65th I will absolutely not work anymore,” she says with a smile. “But I want to leave the foundation behind in good condition.”

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