For over 60 years, the Princess Elizabeth Centre in Woodbrook has served as a home for physically handicapped children.
The compound contains a modern operating theatre, dormitories, outpatient clinic, orthopaedic workshop and expansive grounds that can be used for sports and family days. The centre also offers primary schooling, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
Children with spinal and other physical disabilities from T&T and other Caribbean countries are also taken to the centre for corrective surgery.
Speaking to the Sunday Guardian after he had just performed an operation on a patient, chief orthopaedic surgeon at the centre, Dr David Toby, spoke of their labour of love, which is done free of charge.
“We have two operating sessions per week, one for scoliosis and other deformities on Tuesdays and Thursdays and two clinics where anyone can come free of charge Mondays and Fridays,” he said.
“One scoliosis surgery takes six hours compared to doing four or five other less intensive operations on Thursdays. Surgical services at the centre are free, the children’s parents are asked to make a nominal donation to the home to offset running costs compared to nursing homes. We don’t turn anybody away; if they don’t have the money they can always work out something.”
He said the centre has state-of-the-art equipment and some of the top surgeons in the world, among them Dr Vincent Arlet, Chief of Orthopaedic Spine Services at the University of Pennsylvania and Trinidad-born Dr Edward Abraham from the University of Illinois Hospital, offer their services for free. Toby said Arlet comes two or three times a year to work with him and Abraham had been coming for around 20 years.
He said the centre acts as a hub and tends to all the children who have spinal and other deformities such as cerebral palsy, Blount’s disease, spina bifida and club feet from here, Grenada, St Vincent and St Lucia.
Princess Elizabeth Centre CEO Jan Sirjusingh said there are currently 45 children at the school, which is under the purview of the Ministry of Education. She said there were some children who stayed in the home’s three dormitories, which can house 25 to 30 of them.
Sirjusingh said the children do not come from abandoned or abused homes, but from very loving families. Parents bring their children on Monday morning to school where they stay until Friday, then are taken home for the weekend. She emphasised there was very tight 24-hour security with more than 50 CCTV cameras to ensure their charges’ safety because it was a massive compound.
Sirjusingh said children from Tobago or very distant areas in Trinidad, where their parents can’t come for them every month, were also accommodated. She said the school worked with the normal curriculum and also had special education teachers. The school also has a vocational centre, but they are looking for volunteers to help teach areas like hairdressing, tailoring and art because the children are talented.
However, Sirjusingh said the teachers can do only so much, noting they can only take five or six children at a time as some had conditions such as cerebral palsy and can’t sit still.
President of centre, Dr Calvin Inalsingh, says the facility was started following a gift from the then future Queen of England, Princess Elizabeth, in 1953. Initially it offered treatment for children affected with Poliomyelitis, which was the main cause of deformities in children at that time. He said over the years polio was brought under control by efficient vaccination programmes and the centre shifted focus to surgical care and accommodation for children affected with other disabilities.
Inalsingh said the free operations were started by Dr ELS “Busta” Robertson and taken over by Toby a few years ago. He said they also started operations on children with defects of the hand through Dr Godfrey Araujo.
Noting it could be said that they had moved from a children’s home to a facility where state-of-the-art” operations are performed on children with skeletal (bone) defects, Inalsingh said they devised a strategic plan in accordance with Ministry of Health in 2010 for the centre and had followed it to the letter.
He described Sirjusingh was “God sent” to the centre, noting she goes beyond her duties to ensure the home is run smoothly and that they raise funds through donations. Inalsingh said all the board members give their service free and they were blessed to have doctors, lawyers, accountants, Rotary Club Port-of-Spain members and members appointed by the President and and Ministry of Health on the council.
He said the centre’s staff was like a family working towards the benefit of the children, but they had their problems as any other regulated family. However, Inalsingh said it was his pleasure to be associated with the centre for over 30 years and president for about 15 years.