Working holidays are not just for backpackers
Posted on Monday, November 30, 2020
By Jessica Sinclair
When Dr. Karam Ramotar walked into the Guyana Water Incorporated lab to meet his team for the first time, the staff was ready to greet him, but the ceiling had caved in. No water testing work was possible, so Dr. Ramotar rolled up his sleeves and got to the first tasks: scouting around for a new lab space, setting up benches and equipment, and getting some proper procedures written down on paper.
For the last 25 years, Dr. Ramotar has been an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Ottawa, as well as a microbiologist at the Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus, where for the last decade he has been director of the Microbiology Division. But in his down time he returns to the country he left in 1976, to visit friends and family, and to help out.
“Here’s a guy who is really making a difference. He’s very silent and hardworking and diligent behind the scenes, but it turns out that for years he’s been spending his vacations improving sanitation and public health in Guyana, figuring out about ditches and water pollution, and that kind of stuff,” says Dr. John Veinot, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “I think it reflects really nicely on his character. There are so many people who look for attention, and meanwhile Karam doesn’t care if anyone knows what he’s doing.”
Returning to a changed homeland
Sandwiched between Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname, Guyana is a small former British colony, the only English-speaking country in South America. The country of Dr. Ramotar’s childhood was a pastoral country, laid back in culture and viewing itself as part of the English Carribbean. Since he left, though, the country has transformed, and not always for the better.
Sugar cane, which had served as a backbone of the economy, died a slow death with the rise of beet sugar from Europe. The bauxite mining industry declined, and with only a struggling timber and minerals export industry, social programs started to disappear and poverty rose. Complicating matters is the discovery of oil, which brings a host of new problems wherever it goes.
“There’s more crime, disease, corruption than there was—there’s more barefaced thieving. But I try to forget all of that, sit on the patio and have a beer, relax and enjoy life,” says Dr. Ramotar. “As they say, ‘You can’t boil the ocean’. You can’t fix the whole world’s problems, so I don’t try to fix everything.”
Ensuring a clean water supply
There’s a lot he does try to fix, though. In 2015 when the government changed in Guyana, he was asked to step in to improve the water testing program that was not meeting international standards. In contrast to Canada, where most drinking water comes from lakes and streams, Guyana’s water is distributed from deep wells. Dr. Ramotar’s main concern was setting up a rigorous quality management program, using as its guidelines the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) regulations that govern testing in labs.
On the microbiology side, he instituted the World Health Organization standards that specify the E. coli count in drinking water must be zero, and any detection of that bacterium requires increased chlorination or filtration. On the chemical side, the deeper the well, the more iron comes up, leaving the water brown—and eventually, all the laundry as well. Filtration of iron involves exposing the water to air, so that the iron can oxidize and become solid.
Long before he was called to help with water quality, Dr. Ramotar spent five years working in Guyana for the Society for International Health on TB, gonorrhea and chlamydia testing, as well as teaching at a university there.
“There was a ten-year spell when I didn’t go to Guyana, but once I started to go back, I realized it doesn’t matter where you come from and how long you live in another place. Where you are born always pulls you back,” says Dr. Ramotar.
COVID testing in Canada
While the infectious disease testing project ended in 2007, it positioned him well for the work he has been called on to do this year, as COVID hit. His was charged with leading the implementation of COVID testing for Eastern Ontario, training people on new machinery, coordinating the processing based at CHEO and the General Hospital and overseeing the 24 hour-per-day, 7 day per week testing of samples.
After that job is done, Dr. Ramotar will be ready to retire. With that newfound freedom, he plans to spend winters in Guyana and summers in Canada.
“I’ve had 43 winters in Canada. I think I’ve had enough winters to last me a lifetime. So every winter I’m gone. And then the summers I spend in Canada because I love the summers here—jump in the car, go driving somewhere. But of course with COVID here, we’ll see how that goes.”