Onika Charles injured her foot during training to become a fire officer in Tobago.

When 26-year-old Onika Charles of Crown Point began training to become of a firefighter with the T&T Fire Service (TTFS) in 2019, she never imagined that she would spend the next 20 months experiencing constant pain, neglect, mounting debt, and loss.

Onika claimed after being injured at the TTFS dormitory, what she termed as negligence by the doctors at the Scarborough General Hospital has now placed her in constant pain, from a wound that has never healed due to an infection. Charles said she now requires specialist surgery to save her foot, yet pleas for assistance from authorities in Tobago have all fallen on deaf ears.

“In March 2019 I began training to become firefighter, the position requires that trainees live at the female dormitory at the Argyle Training Facility, and while there I fell on a staircase.”

She said she was taken to the Scarborough General Hospital and subsequently diagnosed with a fractured ankle.

“At the hospital, they said they would not be able to perform the surgery in Tobago so the doctor inserted a Steinmann pin to stabilise the fracture until I got to Trinidad where the surgery could be done. ”

After being airlifted to the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Trinidad she was admitted and discharged several times without the surgery being done. In April, hospital officials informed her that the surgery would not be available anytime soon and she was sent back to Tobago.

“Here in Tobago they sent me home, all this while I kept telling them I felt that something was not right because I was in intense pain. At one point I went back to the hospital I asked them to remove the pin, instead, they gave me an Olfen shot and sent me back home.”

She said she decided to seek help outside of the public healthcare system as no one was able to say when the surgery would be done and she could no longer bear the constant discomfort.

“I had the procedure done in April at a private hospital in Trinidad and I returned to the Scarborough General Hospital for follow up care, but I still kept feeling a lot of pain and eventually I developed a fever.”

Charles said in June things took a turn for the worse when the attending doctor advised that she was suffering from a bone infection at the site where the Steinmann pin had been inserted and this was the cause of her never-ending torture.

“Doctors had to go back into the injury to remove dead bone and tissue from the site, X-rays show that a hole remains at the location. Since then I have had to go back into the injury seven other times to clear away the infection.”

Charles, who does not have a history of diabetes said the site of the injury would occasionally become swollen and begin oozing, accompanied with with intense pain and this she said would signal the need for intervention.

“I sought a second opinion with a specialist in Trinidad and they said I need surgery to address the injury,” Charles said thought the last 20 months would have been a major step towards creating a better life for herself and her eight-year-old daughter.

But instead, the months have been a downward spiral as she has lost everything she acquired before becoming a firefighter trainee.

“I was independent before the accident, had my own apartment and possessions I acquired over time. I was bedridden for seven months; I have lost everything and my debts are mounting. I now have a job at a supermarket but I have to be at the hospital at least ten days out of every month.”

She said she is thankful for the support of her mother throughout the ordeal, as in spite of many requests she has not received support from anyone else.

“I applied for rental assistance—nothing has materialised. The Trinidad and Tobago Fire Service has abandoned me, I reached out to the Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis and the Secretary for Health Tracy Davidson-Celestine with no response.”

She said parliamentary representative for Tobago West Shamfa Cudjoe did, however, give her a one-time-use $500 food card, for which she said she was grateful.

Charles said she would appreciate some assistance with accessing the corrective surgery she needs to rectify the injury so she could return to her normal active lifestyle and being able to care and provide for her daughter.

Several calls to the Divisional Head of the Fire Service in Tobago, David Thomas for comment went unanswered. Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis said he was aware of Onika’s case and based on his information “she would have received some assistance.”

He referred us to the Secretary of Health Wellness and Family Development Tracy Davidson–Celestine for further information.

When contacted, the Communications arm of the Division of Health Wellness and Family Development stated, “The hospital is reviewing its records to make an informed response, since the request from your newspaper came within a short time of your deadline.”