Dr. Tomlinson: A long way from the Brac

From the time he was two years old, Steve Tomlinson knew he wanted to be a doctor. It was an ambitious goal for a young boy growing up in the Brac at a time when healthcare was almost non-existent in the Cayman Islands. He was not sure how it would be possible to achieve this dream, but he knew he had to try. 

Fast forward more than 50 years, and Dr. Tomlinson is not only a doctor, but one who established his own hospital, the Chrissie Tomlinson Memorial Hospital, which recently received an award from the European Business Assembly recognizing it as one of the world’s best regional hospitals. 

Chrissie Tomlinson is an 18-bed hospital specializing in surgical care, with 26 doctors on a 120-person staff. It handles about 120 major cases a month, according to Dr. Tomlinson. It is modern, with high-end equipment including cutting-edge mammography and MRI machines, and with numerous on-site services ranging from radiology to lab work. It is also self-sustaining, he said. 

During Hurricane Ivan, it was one of a few buildings that had electricity. The hospital took inpatients from the Cayman Islands Hospital when it became inundated with water. 

“With the help of their doctors and nurses, and having this little facility here, we saved a lot of lives after the hurricane,” Dr. Tomlinson said. “I believe that after the hurricane, people who didn’t even think of us before as a hospital probably started to think, ‘Oh, it is a good idea to have a second hospital.’” 

Dr. Tomlinson said he never imagined he would establish a private hospital, but the demand for one came from his patients. Always concerned with putting the patient first, he decided he had to try to open a hospital, to better serve the needs of the community and to improve the quality of healthcare for the people of the Cayman Islands. 

“I believe we are only stewards and we’re only here for a limited period of time,” Dr. Tomlinson said. “We need to try to leave the world a better place than when we came in.” 

Dr. Tomlinson’s innate desire to help others pushed him to pursue medicine as a career. As a teenager, he watched as his grandfather suffered from a painful illness that could have been treated with proper medical attention. He died three weeks after falling ill. 

“I walked home the night he died and thought, that shouldn’t have happened,” Dr. Tomlinson said. “I’ve got to change this, I’ve got to do it myself. I’ve got to do medicine. This shouldn’t happen to anybody.” 

Medicine was also in his make-up. Dr. Tomlinson’s grandmother, Mary McLaughlin, was a midwife in the Brac, where she delivered more than 500 babies. His grandfather, Dan Tomlinson, was a “self-made” doctor. 

“He used to fix all the broken bones in Cayman Brac,” Dr. Tomlinson said. “He liked taking out teeth, fixing bones, giving people advice about their illnesses … so I think the paternal grandparents had some influence on my decision.” 

Dr. Tomlinson finished primary school by age 9, completed three years at the Jamaican local school by age 11, and graduated high school in Grand Cayman by the time he was 14. At this point, he was not sure what he should do. 

“My parents couldn’t afford to send me to university, and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to go,” Dr. Tomlinson said. 

He did night auditing at Barclay’s, and he was asked to teach Spanish at the high school, where he led a class that was largely composed of teens older than him. 

When he was 16, Dr. Tomlinson received a scholarship to attend medical school at the University of the West Indies. After working in the U.K. and the U.S., he knew he had to return to the Cayman Islands to help however he could here. 

He became chief surgeon with the Cayman Islands Health Service in the early 1980s. At the time, the Cayman Islands Hospital was far behind the hospitals Mr. Tomlinson had worked for while abroad. He says he spent most of his monthly paycheck buying high-quality suture materials and surgical instruments. 

“I ended up spending it buying things that I knew would improve outcomes for patients,” Dr. Tomlinson said. “I said to myself one day, ‘this is not making sense; just charge a nominal fee for the service and then use it to improve the quality of medical services on the island.’” 

He opened his own practice in 1983, and opened the first ambulatory care center in the Cayman Islands by 1985. In 2000, the Chrissie Tomlinson Memorial Hospital opened, named for Mr. Tomlinson’s mother, who died just after the groundbreaking. 

Starting a private hospital was a massive undertaking. Dr. Tomlinson had to bring in doctors and other staff, and he typically worked more than 100 hours a week himself. 

While he says he has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and was up to the challenge, he credits his success to the support of his patients and his wife. 

“In all of my accomplishments, my wife has been there for me and she’s stuck with it and it hasn’t always been easy,” Dr. Tomlinson said. “She’s been my saving grace in many ways. The right partner makes a big difference between being successful or not.” 

Dr. Tomlinson predicts a bright future for medicine in the Cayman Islands. He says that medical tourism is booming, and the quality of care available is rapidly improving. 

He hopes that young Caymanians will begin to take advantage of the opportunities available and consider pursuing careers in medicine. 

“Just like a lot of people went into banking in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if young people could just think of medicine … it’s a very rewarding profession, and it can be economically rewarding and you’re never out of work.” 

Dr. Tomlinson has to pass on the mantle. He says he is in semi-retirement already (although he still works at least 40 hours a week), and predicts that he will stop performing surgeries in the next two or three years. 

He gives talks at high schools, trying to impress upon students the many rewards that come along with a career in medicine. Those who may have the ambition to go into the field, but have apprehensions, may want to heed his advice. 

“What I tell young people is, always try if you want something,” Dr. Tomlinson said. “You just have to go for it.” 

Dr. Steve Tomlinson. - Photo: Kelsey Jukam
Dr. Steve Tomlinson. – Photo: Kelsey Jukam