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The plastic surgeon becomes an Olympic sailor

The final part in our series on the life of beloved BVI surgeon Dr. Robin Tattersall

Until the 1960s there had been little change or development in the BVI, but following the opening of Little Dix Bay Resort by Laurence Rockefeller in 1964 things began to change. This was followed by several other notable hotels and what Robin and his brother Ralph had unsuccessfully tried to do with their small bareboat charter company Virgin Voyages, rapidly developed into one of the main pillars of the BVI economy, with the Moorings and CSY as the pioneers of the previously non-existent charter industry.

Robin continued to be the only surgeon in the small cottage hospital, but because of his interest in plastic surgery it soon became known in the neighbouring USVI that if someone there received bad facial lacerations they could travel to Tortola where a surgeon, who had fine sutures and instruments was able to fix them with little or no scaring.

Around 1969 a 55-year old American woman went to see Robin. She had been visiting her brother, the Pentecostal Minister in Sea Cows Bay. She said “I understand that you are interested in plastic surgery and I would like you to do a face-lift on me”. She had obviously been a very attractive woman, but life had aged her prematurely. Not only had she been through major cancer surgery, her husband then left her!

Robin told her that he himself had not actually performed a face-lift, but that during his surgical training in London he had spent much of his spare time assisting one of London’s top plastic surgeons. The woman felt confident in Robin’s ability and wanted to go ahead. Robin remembered that his brother had told him that there was an American plastic surgeon, Dr Ralph Blocksma, chartering one of their boats. “Give me 24-hours” Robin said to the potential patient. The rush was on to find Dr Blocksma. There was a possibility that he was anchored in Sprat Bay, which in those days was a beautiful isolated reef protected harbour, long before the Norwegian Torolf Smedvig had built the prestigious Peter Island Resort on the reef.

After work that day Robin sailed to Peter Island on his little tiny Sunfish and found the Virgin Voyages Westerly 28ft anchored in the sublime tranquility of Sprat Bay. Mrs Blocksma, who was the only one aboard informed him that her husband was on the beach. Robin joined him there, asking whether he was prepared to give him a rapid crash refresher course on face-lifts? “He picked up a stick and drew a large face in the virgin sand and proceeded to illustrate exactly what I needed to do”.

When the patient returned the next day Robin agreed to the procedure “I know what to do, but you have to understand that this will be the very first face-lift I’ve ever done”. She happily agreed – especially when she heard that the fee for a major operation at the old Cottage Hospital was $10, the daily bed rate was 75 cents and Robin’s fee would be $100 (and included all four eyelids!)

“I suppose you could call it beginners luck because she had what was probably one of my best results and from this beginning my future as the ‘go to’ plastic surgeon in the region was assured”.

The Purple Palace

Robin had always known his government post would not last forever. The writing was on the wall in the mid 1970s when Robin heard that the future Premier Dr. Orlando Smith was planning to return to the island after completing his surgical training in the UK.

However, like so many seafarers who find their way to the islands by chance, Robin couldn’t bring himself to leave his new life behind and return to dark and dreary England.

Robin decided to set up his own practice and was fortunate in being able to acquire an old half Venetian Gothic, half Louis XVI building which stood boarded up and empty on the site of the battlements of the old Road Town Fort for a number of years.

It had been built in the 1950s by a gay couple, both New York antique dealers who hoped to make it into a boutique hotel. But a love triangle developed leaving one of the owners single. The building was boarded up and left behind.

“When we first arrived in the BVI, on full moon nights some of us would climb over the wall and hold magical parties in the beautiful gardens where all the walls were overflowing with bougainvillea” remembers Robin.

Robin was able to purchase what had become known as The Purple Palace thanks to the original builder, Dr Smith’s uncle Leopold who tipped Robin off that the owner was returning to Tortola for a week with the intention of selling. The sale had to be settled before he left and although there were many interested parties, if Robin could come up with the money, he had first right of refusal.

At the time Robin had zero cash and although the bank offered to lend him two thirds of the purchase price, this still left Robin short. He had an idea – Percy Chubb, head of the famous Chubb Insurance Company and one of the BVI’s most significant early benefactors was in residence in his old estate house at Little Harbour., Peter Island.

“I had met him a couple of times before but in those days there was no telephone with which to contact him. So I borrowed a dinghy from the Moorings and with its little outboard motor chugged my way across the three miles to Little Harbour. Mr and Mrs Chubb were surprised to see me. I told them of my predicament and after a short discussion in private between the two of them, whilst they suggested I pour myself a whiskey from the sideboard, Mr Chubb reappeared with his cheque book. He asked me how much money I needed and wrote out a cheque for the full amount. But before he handed it over he stipulated that there was just one condition – I was to stay here and continue to serve the people of the BVI. This was a pivotal moment in my life because without Mr Chubb’s support I would not have been able to buy the building, may have had to returned to the UK and that would have been the end of my BVI story”.

There were many opportunities to sell the building and double his money within the first 24-hours but he’d made a promise and had no intention of leaving. Indeed he was still performing surgery there until he eventually retired aged 85.

Robin purchased The Purple Palace the day before Good Friday in 1973 and had moved in by the following Tuesday. At first he and his family lived in half of the building but gradually developed the other half into a little clinic with an operating theatre and enough beds for eight patients. It was then that Robin began to specialise more in plastic surgery, which had always been his great love.

In 1976 Dr Blocksma, who had advised Robin on his first face-lift eight years earlier, decided to retire from practice in Michigan and asked Robin whether he could join him in his practice at the now named Bougainvillea Clinic. This was an arrangement that greatly assisted Robin’s practice to flourish.

A year later Dr Blocksma and Robin held the first BVI International Plastic Surgery meeting at the Bougainvillea Clinic. With the tireless efforts of Dr Blocksma in co-operation with Butterworth, his old hospital in Grand Rapids, this expanded into two major meetings held back-to-back each year at Prospect Reef Hotel. One multi-disciplinary and the other in plastic surgery, which in the 1990s became internationally renowned.

Connections that were established at these events enabled Robin to further build up his practice and knowledge and he was able to attract patients from far and wide. Unlike most latter day plastic surgeons, who discharge their patients straight after surgery, he would keep his patients in the beautiful setting of the Bougainvillea Clinic for several days. They would be pampered and well fed until they were ready to return to their mostly distant homes where their friends and family were amazed to see what a few days in the BVI had done for them! “My biggest goal was that none of my face-lift patients should look as though they’d had surgery, just younger and more beautiful”.

Robin had not formally trained as a plastic surgeon and yet became particularly well known for his face-lifts and breast reductions. In those days insurance covered the latter because very large breasts were considered to be a disability.

In addition, because he had been performing all Gynecology before there was a specialist surgeon in that discipline in the BVI, he cleverly combined an Abdominoplasty with a Hysterectomy, where insurance would cover most of the bill. He also perfected some unusual plastic surgery techniques attracting patients from far afield.

Robin never advertised as when he was trained advertising in medicine was a cardinal sin and his practice flourished solely by word-of-mouth. At one time he claimed that the street from which he had the most face-lift patients was Park Avenue, New York!

Although not recognised at the time, in the 1970s the Bougainvillea Clinic was one of the first places in the world to become a destination for medical tourism and Robin was blessed over the years to work with many eminent plastic surgeons from around the world, which allowed him to keep up with modern developments and techniques.

An Olympic sailor

Robin always had an enduring love of the sea and sailing and apart from surgery that was his other great passion. “My father had been a sailor and I started sailing and racing at a very early age”. Therefore it was natural that Robin would engage in the Olympic spirit when the BVI first became an Olympic nation in 1983. It was a no-brainer they should enter a sailing team in the 1984 event held in Los Angeles.

The local Olympic committee selected attorney general Lionel Barker’s two sons Keith and Peter for the two-person 470 class, whilst Robin would skipper a three-person Soling Class keel boat crewed by Keith Thomas and Elvet Meyers.

None of them had ever laid eyes on a Soling Class boat before. So the team chartered one in Los Angeles and had a few days of training before the Regatta. The Olympic spirit was strong, and Robin ended up chatting at the welcoming party with Robbie Haines who, when he heard the BVI team had never sailed a Soling before, offered to give up a day of his own training to show them how to set up and sail one. Luckily this generous gesture did not prevent Robbie Haines from going on to win the gold.

The 1984 Olympics was the last official amateur games. Back then all competitors had to sign an affidavit, swearing that they were genuine amateurs. Robin had great difficultly signing his because when he was 14 he had taken part in a village sports day. On returning home, his Scottish grandfather who had been President of the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association asked how he’d placed. When Robin told him last but that the winner had won half a crown his grandfather told him “You’ve done it now my lad. You will never ever be able to take part in an Olympics, because you have run in a race for money and that makes you a professional forever!”

It took him three days before he could bring myself to sign the declaration and that was only after he read an article in the local newspaper that said Carl Lewis, who went on to win four gold medals had won $900,000 that year, but it was going into a trust which he could legitimately access later when he turned professional after the games were finished.

The 1992 Games were the last where every Olympic nation was allowed one competitor in every event. The BVI entered once again in the Soling Class but this time they took it much more seriously. They bought an old Soling from the US in which they could do some serious training at home.

They even persuaded one of the top US Soling sailors to come to the BVI to help train them. Robin still remained as helmsman but this time he had with him two experienced sailors, Robbie Hirst and John Shirley. The 1992 Games were in Barcelona and they chartered a Soling which was kept at a farm in the south west of France. They towed the boat over the Pyrenees and stopped for the night in Andorra where John had the experience of seeing snow for the first time.

For these Games the BVI’s effort were more serious and although they ended up 17th overall, they had the satisfaction of placing 5th and 4th respectively in the last two races, beating at least two of the medalists. After one of those races, the race committee were so surprised at the BVI team’s performance that they rapidly towed them back to base so they could inspect the boat and test the team’s urine to make sure that they had not been taking any performance enhancing drugs! “That was one of my proudest moments!” said Robin with a smile.

Robin had the distinction of being the oldest sailor at those games, but discovered that in the whole Olympics there had been one other competitor older than him in the Small Bore Shooting competition where the man only had to compete lying down!

Meeting the Queen a second time to receive an OBE

In 2001 the doctor-cum-sailor attended a command performance at Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE. The Lord Chamberlain opened proceedings by announcing “Dr Robin Tattersall, for services to medicine in the BVI”. The Queen, he recalls was 76 at the time.

Robin describes the situation “As her Majesty was about to pin the medal onto my lapel, she said “Tell me, doctor, I expect you must have been in the BVI for a very long time”. To which I responded, “Yes, your Majesty. Actually, I arrived there just a little over 4-months before your very first visit”, and went on to say “You probably won’t remember, but as my operating theatre was the only air conditioned room in the territory, I was asked to keep you in there for 20-minutes to cool off.”

Robin recalls how his dear wife Martha, who was seated in the front row of the audience, watched as her Majesty chuckled and with a big smile responded “Dr Tattersall, I really do have to thank you for that!”. Robin goes on “I’m not sure whether at that moment she had remembered the day when we first met 35-years before, but she is well known to have an excellent memory”.

Golden years

In 2010, when Robin was 80, he sold the Bougainvillea Clinic to Dr Heskith Vanterpool but continued by agreement to operate on his own patients for as long as he felt capable.

When he was 85, he was about to undertake a face-lift on a lady from New York. Just before entering the operating theatre she said she had full confidence in him however she was aware of his age and had he considered if anything was to happen to him during the operation. Nobody had asked Robin that before but he responded that his theatre nurses Pam and Sandra had been with him for over 25-years and he was quite confident that should he drop dead, they would be able to finish without him!

Despite the amusing situation it did give Robin pause for thought. The patient had a good point and it was then that he decided that it was time to stop. He never did another major surgery again. This allowed him to spend more valuable time with Martha in their beautiful second home overlooking Essex Estuary in Massachusetts in the summertime.

But he didn’t give up sailing because that was in his blood. In 2017, aged 88, the indomitable man and his crew received the Best Overall Bareboat award in the BVI Spring Regatta. He successfully won his class again in this years’ Regatta and has a busy race schedule planned in this years’ Classic circuit in the US North East.

Robin now holds court at his home in Brewers Bay, where he will welcome you at sunset for a traditional ‘Vieux Ponche de Chanel’ and sings the recipe “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak”.

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