"That little girl from Massacre"
Eulogy – Dr. Carissa Etienne (2nd November 1952 – 1st December 2023)
Carissa Faustina Etienne was born on November 2, 1952, in the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curaçao, the first of the three daughters (Judy Etienne and Althea Etienne) of Antoine Joseph Etienne and Bertilia Birmingham.
The family would later return to Dominica, where she was raised in the village of Massacre. Carissa often described herself as "a little girl in Massacre – walking barefoot, going to school, being as every other child was". The truth was that she did go to school with shoes on but would remove them so that she could fit in with other children. She attended the Convent High School in Roseau, where she graduated at 16.
One year later, Carissa entered the prestigious Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a medical doctor. She recalled her days at the University of the West Indies as some of the most enjoyable times of her life. At the Mona Campus, she met two fellow students who would later become lifelong friends: Sonia Meade and Lynette Welch. Carissa completed her final year of medical school at the Cave Hill campus in Barbados to earn her degree in medicine and surgery. She would later complete her master's degree in community health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Carissa Etienne started her career in the Princess Margaret Hospital in Dominica at 24, one of only two female doctors. She worked extremely hard to overcome that stereotype under the guidance and tutelage of Dr. Gerald Grell. During her career in Dominica, which spanned over 20 years, she served as Director of Primary Health Care Services, Disaster Coordinator, and National Epidemiologist in the Ministry of Health. She also served as the Coordinator of the National AIDS Programme and Chairman of the National AIDS Committee. Carissa served two terms as Chief Medical Officer (CMO), from 1995 – 1996 and 2000 – 2002, and was an Associate Professor at the Ross University School of Medicine.
Dr Carissa Etienne was appointed Assistant Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) from 2003 – 2008 and then Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Services at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, from 2008 – 2012. She was elected as PAHO Director by its Member States in September 2012. She began the first of her two five-year terms in February 2013. She was re-elected for a second term in September 2017. Under her leadership, PAHO achieved significant milestones for the region of the Americas, none more so than PAHO's response to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Carissa Etienne has received many prestigious awards, including the highest award bestowed by her home country - The Dominica Award of Honor in November 2015, and the highest award from Barbados – The Humanitarian Award, granted to her in November 2022.
Carissa was a devout Catholic Christian who believed in the power of faith and prayer just as much (if not more) as her medical knowledge. It was not uncommon for Carissa to pray with her patients, and she started many prayer groups, including the "Upper Room" prayer group. She and her husband, Mr. Joseph Gregoire, were involved in several church groups, such as the Marriage Encounter (ME) and the Christ in Others Retreat (COR), where they were "mum and dad" to several young people.
Carissa Etienne lived as Jesus commanded – loving her neighbours as she loved herself. Her heart was for the marginalized. She would often waive or reduce fees for patients who could not afford it. She was always available for her patients, no matter the time or the demographic. Even while travelling on PAHO business, she visited those who lacked medical attention. Despite her many accomplishments and accolades, Carissa was a humble soul who still viewed herself as "that little girl from Massacre". She was approachable and welcoming. She greeted everyone with a smile and treated them with respect. She never acted like she was above anyone else. She was a willing listener who always gave sound advice without forcing her ideas or beliefs on anyone.
She opened her heart and, along with her husband, her home to so many people. Her house in Fortune, Dominica, became the neighbourhood's basketball playground and library. She became a second mother to many young boys, affectionately known as "Carissa's Boys". She loved to entertain and hosted many parties. She also had a passion for cooking and prepared a variety of dishes. She loved the holidays, none more so than Christmas. It was her favourite time of the year – food, drinks, music, decorations, gifts, and especially family and friends.
Carissa took her responsibility as a role model very seriously, particularly for the young girls of Dominica who aspire and dream to achieve the same heights as she did. She was a "daughter of the soil" who loved her homeland of Dominica and was proud to represent her country on a regional and global scale.
Dr. Etienne is survived by her husband of over 47 years, her three children, Kimani, Kwame, and Kanika, and three granddaughters, Tahjanea, Grace and Lilly-Ann. Despite her busy career, she always prioritized her family.
"Work is important, but devoting time and attention to my family is the most important thing," she has stated.
Dr. Carissa Etienne was that ray of sunshine that allowed others to feel warm and comforted and allowed your soul to bloom like a flower. She has impacted the lives of so many for the better, which will forever be her legacy.
May her beautiful soul rest in peace.