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The Final Day...
Reflection on the Death of President Cheddi Jagan

By Odeen Ishmael

Time is an interesting commodity. Just when you think you have a lot of it in hand, it gradually slips away. But as time rushes on, some events remain deeply rooted in the memory, especially those in which you were personally involved. For me, it is as if President Cheddi Jagan died only yesterday. Every year since 1997, whenever early March comes around, my mind automatically relives the events surrounding his death on that cold, early morning of March 6, eight years ago.

Those of us who watched over him clung to hope as he lay in hospital for almost three weeks but, after Monday, March 3, as his lung complications worsened, we all began to face reality. The inevitable was about to happen. Death was certainly approaching.

On Tuesday March 4, the doctors informed me of how critical his condition was and how very little they could do for him at the time. By then he was put under heavy sedation and went into a deep sleep.

When I returned to the hospital that evening Dr. Marina Vernalis, the chief cardiologist, said they were all amazed at Dr. Jagan’s resilience and determination to survive. Indeed, he was a true fighter, even as he neared the end.

And throughout it all, Mrs. Jagan never surrendered hope. “If the chances are one to a million for survival, Cheddi is that one,” she told me and her daughter Nadira with confidence.

That night the situation weighed heavily on my mind and I slept very little. Besides, my telephone rang continuously as Guyanese nationals, government functionaries, reporters, and others called for an update of the situation.

I remember Wednesday, March 5, 1997 vividly. Shortly after daybreak, after battling the Washington beltway traffic, I arrived at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I went up to Ward 40, on the fourth floor, where President Jagan rested in an unconscious state. Mark Brancier, Nadira’s husband, was sitting just outside the room and he immediately informed me that the situation was grim. Soon after Mrs. Jagan came by and relayed that the doctors said it was just a matter of time.

Disheartened, I left for the Embassy and phoned the Minister of Information Moses Nagamootoo to give him the latest medical bulletin. I then briefed my staff on the President’s deteriorating condition and, immediately after, rushed off to the Pan American Health Organization headquarters for the opening session of the Summit Implementation Review Group (SIRG) meeting at 10 o’clock. And since the OAS Permanent Council was also convening at the same time, I sent another member of my staff to represent me there.

The SIRG meeting debated the follow-up of the Action Plan of the 1994 Summit of the Americas. But interestingly, the delegates from the 34 countries, who were aware of the President’s illness, suspended the discussion and asked me for an update of his condition.

Meanwhile, telephone calls kept pouring in at my residence and the Embassy. Everyone was anxiously awaiting some news. And the minute I stepped into my office at around one o’clock, media personnel from Guyana, England and across the United States understandably called for the latest information. Among those was the late Patrick Denny of the Stabroek News who in his quiet, probing way, sought answers from me and, in turn, gave me a description of the Guyanese nation’s demeanor at that time of national distress.

After that I telephoned Mrs. Jagan who said the doctors had removed the sedatives to wake up the President. But because his response was negative, they decided to sedate him again.

I returned to the SIRG meeting around three o’clock, but decided after an hour to go back to the hospital. There I found Nadira and Mark sitting quietly outside the President’s room. I proceeded to his bedside and noted that his eyes were closed and he was breathing through a respirator. Further, his blood pressure kept fluctuating. And though his breathing was evidently softer, he continued to fight the claws of death. He was still hanging on.

The attending doctors, Dr. Jennifer Callagan and head cardiologist Dr. Marina Vernalis, were there as well and they checked in on him from time to time. Over the period of the President’s hospitalization, I became closely acquainted with both of these doctors, and with many of the other 23 physicians in the team assigned to the President, and they impressed me tremendously with the commitment and medical care they provided.

Mrs. Jagan, who had been resting in a nearby room, came in and all of us, including the doctors, sat and chatted for a while. I had bought a few packets of M&Ms on my way to the hospital and I shared them around as we talked about various matters, including information in the Guyanese media about the President’s deteriorating condition, the concerns of Guyanese nationals over the President’s illness, the work of the doctors at that military hospital, and Joey Jagan’s impending arrival. Joey who had accompanied his father to Washington had gone back to Guyana after about a week, was returning to be by his father’s bedside. A member of my staff was waiting at that very moment at Reagan National Airport to pick him up and rush him to the hospital. Joey’s wife and three children along with Nadira’s two children were expected to come to the hospital later in the evening.

As Mrs. Jagan conversed with all of us, her determined fortitude was ever present. All through the period of her husband’s illness she stood out as a beacon of dignity, grace and courage. She never wilted under the stress that the situation presented, and she was the one who continuously inspired us with hope that, despite the odds, her comrade-at-arms would win this battle for his life. On many a late evening when I dropped in at the hospital I found her alone where she sat for long hours to keep watch over her husband. She never broke down under the pressure.

Around six o’clock I looked in on the President again. His face and eyes seemed swollen; his eyes were closed and he was breathing quietly. A nurse was checking the monitors in the room and from time to time and the doctors would observe his condition. Then Mrs. Jagan and Nadira went in and rubbed his hands and feet for a while.

As the clock ticked away and time was running out, I decided around half past six to leave the family together for their final farewell. Mark promised to call me as soon as the inevitable happened. I then proceeded alone into the room to say my final goodbye to my President, my comrade, my friend. I held his right hand and looked down into his serene face. Here was the father of our nation, dying in front of me, and I who, from since childhood days, was nourished with his ideas, could do absolutely nothing for him. I could not help being choked up with emotion as I looked at the living face of Cheddi Jagan for the final time.

I walked away from that room with a heavy heart, moist eyes and feet of lead.

I stepped out through the doors of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center into the cold winter evening. The member of my staff, sent earlier to the airport to meet Joey, was waiting on the kerb and he told me that Joey had gone inside only moments before.

On arriving home, I told my family that we were now on the death-watch and that the President would not live through the night. A radio station from New York called to say it was receiving calls from its listeners that the President had already died. Patrick Denny of Stabroek News phoned for an update and, soon after, so did Sharief Khan, editor of the Guyana Chronicle. I remember telling him that we were now waiting for the inevitable. “The flame that lit the torch of freedom and democracy in Guyana is flickering low,” I reported.

My wife, son and daughter sat with me as we waited for the sad news. And each time the phone rang that night we anticipated the call was from Mark but it came from elsewhere. Guyanese in the USA, Canada and the Caribbean were phoning to say they heard the President died earlier in the day, and wanted to know if this was true. Midnight slipped in to herald the beginning of a new day. Then just after 12:23 a.m., on that clear, cold and quiet winter night, the phone rang. It was Mark. The legendary life of Cheddi Jagan was over.

(Note: Dr. Odeen Ishmael, currently Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela, was Ambassador to the United States at the time of Dr. Jagan’s death. He and his wife were the only non-relatives, other than the medical personnel, who saw Dr. Jagan during his hospitalization. Within minutes of Dr. Jagan’s death, a Reuters news report quoted Ambassador Ishmael as saying, “The President is dead. The flame has now gone out.”)
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