A humble woman with ‘the common touch’
I am truly honoured to share with you the remarkable career of my friend, Joan Dillas-Wright. Throughout her life, she has exhibited the tenacity and determination to succeed, yet remains so humble that even I — her friend of more than 40 years — was unaware of her numerous accomplishments.
Joan Dillas-Wright grew up in Ingham Vale, Spanish Point, where many families were related. Joan is the second of six children born to Eldon and Inez Dillas. She attended the West Pembroke School before moving on to The Berkeley Institute, where her high school education was interrupted after one year because of the illness of her mother.
During an unfortunate era in mental healthcare, her mother had puerperal psychosis diagnosed, was admitted to hospital and was separated from the family for many years. At that time, the psychiatric hospital and staff lacked the medicine, training and capacity to adequately care and treat patients with this diagnosis, and mental illness generally.
Many family members offered to adopt the children individually, but her father was determined to care for them himself. He was not only a loving father and disciplinarian but also an excellent cook and baker. Fortunately, his sister, Edith, lived in the family homestead next door and assisted him with the children.
Leaving Berkeley prematurely did not stifle Joan, as she was a voracious reader who was never seen without a book. Education was important to her parents and before long she was enrolled in Merle Brock-Swan’s Night School — now the Adult Education Centre — where she studied maths, English and typing. She also received extra tuition from Olga and Leroy Simons, from Cobbs Hill, Warwick, as well as Elizabeth Isaac, to whom she is eternally grateful.
To supplement the family income, she worked many jobs — from childminding to cleaning houses to ironing clothes, particularly the suits and fatigues of the Kindley Air Force Base officers and airmen. At one time, she worked in The Straw Factory on Angle Street. The straws, infused with strawberry, chocolate and vanilla, were to flavour the milk as you sipped. The business was not a success and closed after 18 months.
Joan had always harboured ambitions of becoming a nurse. Her cousin, Helen Stowe-Lambe, operated a nursing home on Cox’s Hill, Pembroke, and she had often assisted her. Finally, there was an opportunity to work at the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital as a maid on the male ward, which she readily accepted. Two nurses, the late Jacqueline Lightbourne, who went on to become Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health, and Barbara Wade, who was employed in 1958 as the first Black nurse at KEMH, noted her interest in nursing and took her under their wing.
She was encouraged to observe the dressing of wounds and the administering of injections. These nurses saw her potential, gave her the addresses of training hospitals in England and recommended she write Simon Fraser, the Chief Medical Officer, for permission to study in England. All her applications were successful, but she selected King George Hospital because it offered the earliest placement in March 1961. Her father was delighted and assisted her financially every week in saving for her ship’s passage from New York to England.
She was due to travel from Bermuda with another nursing student, but at the last minute the other student was unable to travel and Joan’s father was adamant that she not travel alone. Fortuitously, a cousin, Lorraine Dyer-Bizek, who was a well-respected and qualified nurse/health visitor was at home on holiday. Joan’s father met with her and she became her guardian angel. She gave Joan all the skills needed to survive away from home — information on nursing and living in England. On the day of admission, she accompanied her to the hospital in Ilford, Essex, where her nursing career began.
At King George Hospital, she met another Bermudian — the late Sandra Allen who had begun her training three months before Joan arrived. They were the only Bermudians for the entire three years of training.
Joan thought she would require additional coursework because she did not possess a high school diploma. The instructors did not feel this was necessary and she excelled, receiving the Frank Warrener Shield for achieving first place in the Preliminary Training School. Determined to succeed, Joan maintained this level of excellence throughout her training. As a bonus, she received £100 from the Bermuda Nurses’ Association, a division of the Friendly Societies.
Years later when she returned to Bermuda to work for the Bermuda Hospitals Board, she saw Ms Brock-Swan, her former teacher and mentor. She enthusiastically informed her that after the interview with Dr Fraser all those years ago, he had informed her that he knew she would “go far”.
In 1964, she became a registered nurse and by 1965 had completed her midwifery training achieving her State Certificate of Midwifery from Rochford Maternity Hospital in Essex, England.
One of her career plans was to work in Ghana, and towards that end she completed several relevant courses while maintaining full-time employment.
In 1968, she received a Family Planning Certificate from the International Planned Parenthood Federation while working as a nurse/midwife at King’s College Hospital, London. She held this position from 1966 to 1969 until she was appointed Senior Nurse/Midwife at Guy’s Hospital, London. In 1972, she received a Certificate in Tropical Diseases from University College Hospital, London.
From 1972 to 1975, Joan was employed by St Thomas’ Hospital, London as a staff nurse in the intensive care unit. In 1975, her plans still revolved around employment in Ghana and she continued to prepare herself by adding a Diploma in Parent Craft and Childcare from the Royal Institute of Public Health and Hygiene.
While finalising her plans to move to Ghana, she decided to return to Bermuda in 1975 and assumed the position of staff nurse at Cedars Rehabilitation Unit, which provided nursing and psychiatric care to long-stay patients. This experience resulted in her desire to return to England to train as a Registered Mental Nurse. She entered the Claybury Hospital in Woodford, Essex, and by 1976 added the RMN designation to the two others she already held.
Ghana’s loss was Bermuda’s gain. She returned to Bermuda where her career developed from Junior Charge Nurse to Charge Nurse, then on to Mental Welfare Officer working in the Psychiatric Outpatient Department and Community to Chief Alcoholism Counsellor/Administrator at KEMH.
In 1982, she married Roy Wright, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Canada, where he taught politics and sociology. After their marriage Mr Wright relocated to Bermuda, where he served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at the Bermuda College until his retirement.
Joan has an insatiable desire to be competent in whatever role she assumes and always prepares herself for the future. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Queen’s University, Canada; a Master of Science in Counselling Psychology from Indiana University; a Certificate in Health Maintenance Organisation from Harvard Medical School; a Certificate in Nursing Unit Administration, from Toronto, Canada; a Certificate in Counselling Skills from North East London Polytechnic; and a Certificate from the Institute in Supervisory Management, England.
In 1995, Joan Dillas-Wright was appointed Director of Nursing at St Brendan’s Hospital, which has since been renamed the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute.
Her initiative, drive, innovative ideas and organisational skills did not go unnoticed, and her career continued to progress from Director of Programmes and Support Services to Director of Programmes and Administration — both positions were at St Brendan’s Hospital. In 1999, she was appointed acting chief executive of the Bermuda Hospitals Board and in 2000 she became a consultant to the CEO of the BHB before moving on to CEO, a position she held until her retirement in 2006.
Joan travelled to Buckingham Palace in 2008 to be appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to healthcare in Bermuda.
In 2008, to add to her numerous accomplishments, she was appointed as an independent senator to the Bermuda legislature by the Governor, Sir Richard Gozney. Four years later, she was elected Vice-President of the Senate by her peers and today sits as President of the Senate. In this capacity, she has attended Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conferences in Seychelles and Ottawa, Canada.
Joan is an active member of the Devonshire Anglican Church and in 2020 was appointed by the Right Reverend Nicholas Dill, Bishop of Bermuda, as chair of the Racial Justice Committee of the Anglican Church of Bermuda. She has dedicated herself to a life of service and over the years has given invaluable expertise as a member of numerous committees and boards. Her wide range of knowledge on various issues and needs within the community have enhanced every service these organisations provide.
Unbelievably, she finds time to include more relaxing activities. She has travelled extensively and enjoys simple pleasures such as walking on the beach, gardening, reading, entertaining and dining out with friends.
She has dedicated her life to her family, her career and the community. Despite her illustrious career, she has never failed to remember the early struggles and remains empathetic to others. She is a humble woman who has not “lost the common touch”.
The Honourable Joan Dillas-Wright MBE, JP, SRN, SCM, RMN, BA, MSc is a phenomenal Bermudian whose perseverance, confidence and quiet dignity is an example of what can be accomplished when one strives to be the best.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, writer and historian