Beyond Borders

Home to Serve

By Kevin C. Thornton

Dr. Vonetta George returns to Antigua to make a healing difference in healthcare.

Dr. Vonetta George ’16, Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA), has proven that with empathy, compassion, and talent, you can make a significant healing difference. A native of the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, George is currently chief of surgery at Antigua’s Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre, working in emergency, surgical, and critical care areas while supervising a wide range of hospital staff, including medical students, interns, house officers and registrars, and other specialist surgeons.

But that critical work is only part of her story. Over a 15-year-plus span George has pursued a learning and healthcare practice journey that has taken her from Cuba, where she earned her medical degree, to the smaller Caribbean island of Anguilla, and finally back home to Antigua. Through all those experiences, her road has been paved with opportunities, achievements, education, and an admirable commitment to saying “yes” when help was needed.

“I care about people,” George says. “I’m here to serve.”

An Outstanding Alumna

In 2012, while she was working as a general surgeon at Princess Alexandra Hospital on Anguilla, George heard several nurses there discussing earning their nursing degrees at Walden. “I was intrigued,” she says.

“I did some research and was impressed with Walden’s commitment to social change. It fit into my own belief that to be able to influence an entire health system, you must be in the room where the decisions are being made. To do that, you need to equip yourself to get there.”

She did just that, earning her MHA from Walden in 2016. Her experience was positive, and the impact her education had on her work was so impressive, that in 2021 she was a nominee for Walden’s Outstanding Alumni Award.

“I enjoyed the program,” George says. “Every time I learned something, I tried to put it into practice at work, especially quality and leadership strategies. It made a difference.”

Enhancing a Health System

In 2016, George was acting medical director for the Health Authority of Anguilla, the umbrella organization for the island’s healthcare system. With both the Health Authority and at Princess Alexandra Hospital she would help implement cutting-edge improvements aimed at enhancing the quality of healthcare on the island.

“As a physician, you can help your patients and their families, but then there’s a whole system that needs to be properly influenced,” George notes. “In order to be pointed in the right direction, you always need transformational change.”

The transformational change she helped influence ranged from strategies to assist in general surgery to improvements in performance quality, and a focus on physician well-being. She also championed a system-wide health sector disaster management plan.

“Anguilla is a small island, and we definitely needed to make some improvements in our health system,” she says. “It was a lot of hard work, but I had the support of nearly everyone in the country. I enjoyed being there because it’s such a small community and the people were so caring, so loving, and so appreciative of our work.”

Lending a Healing Hand

One of the many exceptional qualities that sets George apart is her empathy for patients and her willingness to use her knowledge and talent to help when—and where—needed.

Though at the time she had no particular plan to make a job change, in 2012 she would end up in Anguilla because she was needed. A friend, a urologist and distant cousin working in Antigua, knew the depth of George’s knowledge and experience and knew there was an opportunity for her to make a difference as a general surgeon on the island. She couldn’t say no.

“The surgeon in Anguilla had just left and they needed somebody quickly to help,” she recalls. “Anguilla is a smaller island than Antigua, and on a small island, if you’re a general surgeon you do everything: general surgery, urology, pediatric surgery, orthopedics, neurosurgery, even gynecology and obstetrics if needed.

“I was hesitant, but I said, OK, I can go for two weeks,” she says. “Then I was asked if I could stay a month, and after that a year. That year ended up being five. I fell in love with the island and the people, and they really needed a lot of help.”

Going Home for Good

It was a similar situation that motivated George to return home to Antigua, because helping and serving is at the very core of who she is.

While in Anguilla, she married Leslie Nanton, an IT project management professional, a singer, and native of Canada. After their marriage, the couple planned to move to Nanton’s home country in the Great White North. But first George suggested a last visit to Antigua, just to relax.

They didn’t make it to Canada.

While in Antigua, George received a call from the medical director at Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre (formerly Mount St. John’s Medical Centre). The hospital was having challenges with its emergency department—could George join the staff and help? “I told him I had other plans,” she says, “but we met, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve looked over your CV, and you’re just what we’re looking for.’”

With a workforce of 500 and a medical staff of over 200, the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre is the largest hospital on the island of Antigua, serving a population of approximately 100,000. With her master’s in emergency medicine and her MHA, George was perfect for the job.

In 2018, George became head of the hospital’s emergency department while also being attached to the surgical department and medical administration. She would also be named chair of the Antigua and Barbuda Medical Council and is now chief of surgery at the hospital.

Journey’s End … for Now

George’s journey seems to have ended, at least for now, back home in Antigua. But that doesn’t mean she’s relaxing. Not when she’s a visible leader and healthcare provider at the only public hospital serving a population of approximately 100,000.

Along with performing surgeries, George has focused her energies on several areas of need in the hospital system, including efforts such as implementing an Emergency Severity Index (ESI) triage system and broadening her and the hospital’s perspectives to international levels, working with the Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization as an Emergency Medical Team (EMT) coordinator.

She is now chair of the emergency medical team’s Strategic Advisory Group of the region of the Americas and has been instrumental in the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre’s response to the pandemic as vice chair of its COVID-19 task force.

Empathy and Compassion

On every step of George’s journey, there has been one consistent theme: caring. She credits her former priest, the Rev. Derek A. Stapleton, as well as her mother, Ernesta Walker, for that perspective.

“I recognized the calling to care when I was just a teenager,” she says. “I was influenced greatly by my mother, who is the most caring, hardworking person I know. She was a single mom working hard to support three children. She still plays a big part in the life of service I’ve chosen.”

Finally, one of the major initiatives George undertook in her current position was to address patient complaints in the emergency department, complaints that she found were not based so much on the medical treatments themselves, but on the way patients were being treated.

To address that, she implemented several quality measures, including empathy training sessions for physicians and nurses, as well as new protocols for the department. It was a perfect reflection of her commitment to patients, quality, and her commitment to home.

“I focus on the people and lead with empathy,” she says. “If you’re in a service position like I am, empathy is a really, really good thing. This is what it takes to start the wheels of change turning.”

“People who are sick face high levels of stress,” she says. “Our job includes helping them heal, but also to provide compassion.

“Whether it’s a small island or a big city, compassion helps to ease the pain.”