Publisher — 26 June 2009 — by Evan X Hyde
As noted briefly in this newspaper last Friday, Dr. Neil Garbutt, 62, succumbed to cancer last Thursday evening at the Belize Health Care Partners.
On Friday morning around 9:45, Senator Henry Gordon called to say that Neil would be buried at 10 that morning. Henry was not sure whether it was Lords Bank or Flowers Bank. But I was fairly sure that it would be Dr. Garbutt’s lovely and beloved farm on the banks of the Sibun River at Freetown Sibun. The notice was too short for me, and so I did not make the funeral.
A little over a month ago, I had received a message that Dr. Garbutt, my friend and classmate (Holy Redeemer Boys School and St. John’s College), was terminally ill. The news struck me, as I’m sure it did many others, like a lightning bolt. Neil was just seven months older than I, and this was a man I had never seen indulge in any of the vices the rest of us had (indulged in).
Having confirmed the tragic news, I visited Neil at the Health Care Partners. He was subsequently released, then re-admitted. The process of admission, release and re-admission was repeated at least once more.
On Thursday, June 11, I took my dad, who was one of Neil’s patients, to visit him at the hospital. During our visit, my dad asked about his farm, whereupon Neil spoke at length, and clearly in an inspired way. Because of that experience, when the Senator informed me last Friday of the funeral, I immediately surmised that it must be at the farm, because Neil loved the farm. He said that he had built the fence himself, alone, and explained to us in detail how he had done so. It was an impressive achievement.
Yes, but for Neil to rise from his father’s shoemaking assistant to become a world class surgeon specialist was, needless to say, much more impressive. It was spectacular.
On my first visit to Neil on his sick bed in May, I had said to him that I had love for him and that he was the greatest of our class. This was important for me to say, because most of the academic hype in our class had been around myself. But to be a healer is the greatest calling in life, I believe, and Neil had become a truly magnificent healer. For him to enter urology, and make those sacrifices necessary to become a surgeon specialist in a field so desperately important today, was awesome. For real.
Neil was such a private guy that I don’t believe he would have wanted me to write as I’m doing. I feel, however, that I must honor him here in order to pay respect to his family members. They were so proud of him. Some of them must surely have wished for a public funeral in order to share their grief and show their love for Neil.
But during my visits to Neil, I began to get the impression that Neil was planning his own funeral. He said to me, “There is no fear in me.” It was incredible, but true. How could a human being be so brave?
To the best of my knowledge, there were no death announcements on radio and television. Neil was buried less than 24 hours after his death. I have no idea as yet as to the nature of the funeral service. Without proof, I have no doubt that Neil had given specific orders before he died.
You know, from the time I heard of my friend’s terminal illness, one thought has kept running through my mind: life is so unfair, cruelly so. Neil was at his absolute peak as a urologist, training and experience having come together in splendid combination. He had spent more than half his life acquiring the education and training which elevated him to where he was. He was a man who kept himself in tip top physical condition. Life, my people, it is so unfair, cruelly so.
In the larger sense, life is also unfair for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of us Belizeans who benefited from and would have benefited from Neil’s medical counsel and surgery. Under normal circumstances, a specialist like Neil would have had perhaps 20 more years to practice, if he so desired. And so, we Belizeans have truly lost a jewel.
On his dying bed, Neil told me that he had worked in his father’s Albert Street shoemaking shop from the time he was five and a half, when his mother died, until he was nineteen. He told me of how he had worked at S.J.C. Extension after finishing Sixth Form. This was after he had previously worked at the S.J.C. campus while attending Sixth Form. (Neil did much of the landscaping at Landivar.) Both these jobs were under the supervision of Fr. John Stochl, S.J.
Earlier, I referred to the sacrifices which Neil had made in order to achieve. He spoke to me of the roughly twenty-year period from S.J.C. Sixth Form, through Wayne State in Detroit, then the Mona, Jamaica campus of UWI, and finally, the urology program at Temple University in Philadelphia. Neil’s story is seriously important, because it would give hope and strength to younger Belizeans. If I were a rich man, I would hire a professional biographer to research his life and do justice to the life and career of Dr. Neil Garbutt.
Neil worked his way from here to there. He richly deserved every bit of his professional success. No one gave him anything. His saga brings to mind the classic words of our black Shakespeare, James Brown: “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door: I’ll get it myself.”
I can say without reservations, Dr. Garbutt was a great Belizean. I would like for other Belizeans to write and pay tribute to him. Remember, he had friends and colleagues who moved in different circles from mine. I don’t want Belizeans to learn of him only through myself. Neil and I had our differences. We were different people. He was a better man than I. I accept this, and I pay tribute. Let others come forward and testify. Maximum, maximum respect, Dr. Neil Garbutt. Rest in peace, brave warrior.