I have never considered myself a superstitious person, in fact I’d go as far as saying myself to be the direct opposite; logical, factual and sometimes borderline cynical. That was ofcourse until i became a doctor..
I remember the moment I decided I wanted to become a doctor. I was in grade 4, busying myself in the school library. Seated on the floor with my legs crossed, i still remember paging through my favourite book, feeling the crisp old paper between my finger tips.
I was joined by an unfamiliar face who also appeared to be a bit of a loner. As I had very little in the social skills department, I sat quietly focusing on my book whilst peering up intermittently to check on my potential friend. I couldn’t muster up an ounce of courage to introduce myself and I remember feeling a sense of awkwardness, a feeling i was to become very familiar with over the years.
She was my age with curly hair and a pink frock and white socks. She sat all but a metre away from me surrounded only by books. I slowly turned my head toward her and peeped, and made sure she wasn’t watching me whilst I moved a seat closer to her. My master plan was to accidentally bump into her whilst seated and become life long friends and share our love for books while enjoying peanut butter and jam sandwiches. A happy ending indeed.
Before i could complete my thought on our impending friendship, I heard her make a peculiar sound. It wasn’t a word, it wasn’t a greeting, it was a cough. A desperate cough. A shriek.
She stood up and gripped her throat while she leaned over the nearby bookshelf appearing to turn a hue of blue. I hurried closer to Her confused by the situation. I hoped she wouldn’t die so soon. Luckily out darted our teacher, to aid the dire situation, after all adults know everything.
She began violently slapping my could-be friend on her back with her petite wrists while thrusting her chest. I stood as still as a stature still blatantly unaware of what my teacher was doing.
Pretty soon my potential friend breathed a huge gulp of air and her pink cheeks were restored. My teacher turned to me and quickly explained how she was choking, while sweat dripped off her forehead. I remember witnessing my first ever life-saving incident, and boy was i impressed.
Throughout high school I was fascinated by medicine, an absolute and exact science i thought. Obviously, I was wrong.
I had my first encounter with the supernatural during a casualty call during internship. I was reeling from a busy day and mentally prepared myself for a long night ahead when i heard a loud screech from the ambulance bay. Great, i sarcastically thought. An emergency to kick off the night. An ominous sign right off the bat.
I headed toward the bay and didnt find any ambulances in sight. Instead i found a red citi golf with a peculiar figure stepping out of the drivers seat. He was obviously a man of tradition, he bore animal skin on his chest and back with hide as shoes. He carried a stick-looking staff which i thought was for balance.
What he unloaded from the backseat was more of shocker. A child, estimated age of about 10 years old, bound by rope to his wrists, no shoes , red shorts and his mouth wide opened as he screamed in agony.
What is going on here i thought!? Getting the dreaded feeling. I hope this is not a case of child abuse. The traditional man interrupted my thoughts.
“Doctor I am a doctor too, of traditional medicine. I brought my son to you because he is possessed by the demon of a man i once knew who cursed me. I cannot extract the demon out of his mind. He is becoming angry and he will hurt himself, please help Him”
I looked at the boy and I agreed that he did look like a danger to himself as he jolted back and forth on the wheel chair in which he sat. I didn’t know where to begin given the information that was offered to me by the father.
Do doctors believe in demon possession? Who possessed him and why? Whats in it for the demon? How do i ask these questions without sounding disrespectful? Whats the treatment for demonic possession? How do i confirm this diagnosis? I was dumb founded.
I tried to extract a history from the boy but he stared at me with dilated pupils and began violently biting his bottom lip until blood oozed out of his gums. I began panicking. He kicked and screamed as I placed my stethoscope on his chest.
I knew extracting a history would be impossible so I resorted to the next best thing, sedation.
After he relaxed a bit, I began examining him while i retrieved collateral history from his traditional doctor. All his vitals were in normal range and he appeared as normal as could be as he lay sedated. The history however, did not correlate at all.
The traditional healer/sangoma/father relayed the odd story of how he had a dispute with his neighbour 2 weeks ago who vowed to curse his entire family. 2 weeks went by uneventfully until this fine day when he returned from school and became violent, posing a real threat to himself. Before this day he was just a normal 10 year old boy with no worries at all.
The father attempted to extract the demon by exorcism and summoned a priest to help him to no avail which is why he turned to his last resort, western medicine. I was utterly gobsmacked.
I drew bloods and added a tox and drug screen for good measure ofcourse. I informed the father he obviously needed admission for a full work up which he reluctantly agreed to.
I belled the psychiatrist on call who was relieved to hear the interesting case. “I love demonic possession” he sniggered. I reeled the physicians expertise in as well to exclude any general medical conditions. I waited.
Pretty soon the boy was on his way for admission to the psychiatrist since the physicians found nothing to tickle their fancy.
The flow of casualty went on as usual, congested and busy as expected. I happened to meet the psychiatrist on my way out the following morning and I enquired about the boy.
He informed me that upon further probing, once the boy could speak, the boy admitted that he had ingested space cakes (marijuana/dagga) with some school friends the morning before to take the edge off before his exams.
The father was so furious when he heard the news. Security had to restrain him from assaulting his son with a shambock. The psychiatrist looked drained, his tie loosened and shirt hung out. I thought I saw a hint of fatigue.
I smiled as I walked out. South Africa, You just never know! And Tomorrow’s another day.
Really gotta love South Africa.
It truly is filled with a diverse mix of colours, cultures and people.
Hats off to all you medical workers.
Truly respect the work you guys do👏