I’m of the opinion that South Africans in general have a good sense of humor in comparison to the rest of the world but South African doctors in particular have an added sense of humor. I guess it’s necessary as a coping mechanism. The humour is a must, but sometimes has a hint of darkness. I’m not sure why. I guess With all the blood and gore flying around, you get conditioned by it and it helps you survive. You have to be able to laugh at situations, the system, the government, people and especially yourself (Mostly yourself).
I have been carried through some dark times by humor. I remember doing up to 10 calls a month for 6 months during staff shortages. I was so burnt out, dragging my feet, lugging my head from patient to patient. I was tired, hungry and grumpy for so long. My migraines were never worse. I was almost always in some kind of pain. But What broke the monotony was a special nurse with a special personality who I laughed my head off with during every call. That made things slightly more bearable for the both of us.
It was not only what she said, but how she said it. Animated and theatrical, even mundane work became a source of fun. She had a heart of kindness and empathy I am unable to explain in words. She was always the first one to notice and address patient difficulties. She was appropriately firm yet so soft. She was deeply involved in community outreach projects and truly cared for the community she was a part of.
Everyone loved her. She could give you a scathing 1 hour lecture about your health, then hug you like you have never been hugged before. Her nursing uniform was always extra white and ironed to the T. She was not old but had this wise look on her face. She wore bright red lipstick that never seemed to fade and a traditional small nursing cap that sat so perfectly on her hair. She always smelled like stay- soft and a mother’s touch. She had a way of saying things that always made you question your sanity in the funniest of ways. “Are you okay in the head? Have you gone mad?” Was her favourite question that never needed answering. The hugs were my favourite (pre-covid). There is only 1 person I have met who gives hugs of the same caliber (Dr Grace). She always spoke her mind and never allowed injustices to pass, no matter how small.
At the start of each 24 hour call, she would make us both a cup of coffee that would often run cold and was consumed 6-8 hours later. She would peer out at the gate of the clinic and start predicting what cases we would see.
“Yazi Moosa, today feels like trauma. 3 stabbed heads, 1 stabbed upper limb and a panga to some body part. I’m not in the mood. I didn’t sleep well last night because my neighbour’s BP was high and she was crying with a headache the whole night”.
“I sniggered. That’s very specific. I hope you’re wrong. Plus is a wednesday mid-month. No one has money to get drunk”.
“Haibo! Sizothini wena. There’s always money in this place. If they want to drink, they will find a way.A R20 bet if we see any trauma”.
The clouds gathered and greyed. The rain poured down in perfect synchrony. I was tempted to up her bet to R50 but I knew better.
I knew She was right. Mid-month Wednesdays meant nothing. Violent stabbings was the order of every day, all day, all month and year. I declined the bet because I knew she would win and my sandwich fund was running low.
We didn’t have to wait long before the first patient came in. I immediately looked for signs of bleeding, trauma, avulsed limbs/parts. I was happy to find none. His top hat and 2 piece suit was drenched. Thankfully he peeled off 2 layers and was reasonably dry.
Sister N started with the vitals. She violently unwrapped the BP cuff and the old velcro tore apart with difficulty. I heard the conflicting tone in her voice. She had this high pitched tone when she was irritated. It was both funny and a clear sign that something was wrong.
“…So basically, you put the kettle and stove off in your house, you canceled supper, you walked 5km’s in the rain because there’s no taxi now at 6:30pm, you left the safety of your house… because your big toe is painful. And wait, let me clean my story, your toe has been painful for 2 years which is also 24 months. Your complaint is as old as a toddler. Please stop me as soon as I’m wrong baba”.
The well dressed, rain-soaked old gentleman looked at Sister N, looked at me, looked outside probably regretting making his way here in the rain and just nodded in agreement.
“Baba, then I’m sorry but I have to ask, Are you drunk? Or are you mad?”
The old gentleman looked at her and before he could answer, I held back the urge to laugh, and decided to quickly attend to the toe so we can all be on our way. Sister N was still trying to make sense of the situation and came to no sensible conclusion.
The toe was obviously inflamed. I was suprised he had managed for so long. Lateral to the toe margin was a 1cm laceration with infected edges which oddly enough had some kind of a leafy stuffing imbedded in the crevice. How could they fit so much leaf in such a small toe, i didnt know. I asked about the nature of how the laceration came about but Sister N quickly intervened with a worried look on her face.
“That’s traditional scarrification. Baba, you went to a sangoma? Why? Do you know how dangerous it is to make cuts?Look, now the cut he made on your toe is infected. So you came to the clinic after you went out to get yourself damaged? Now we must fix your infested toe? What if theres gangrene”.
Sister N’s direct tone was direct and stern. The gentleman was in pain, wet, irritated and his frustration was growing.
“Bheka iBP yakho baba. Sister N pointed to the screen with a blood pressure reading of 180/110. When last have you checked your BP? Did you ask the sangoma to check your BP? Because look now, you have high BP and an infected toe. ” she scurried for the glucometer.
They exchanged looks of sorts. I tried to pacify the pair of them. I quickly distracted the gentleman by taking bloods and gave him a spare linen to dry his feet and shoes.
“Haibo Moosa! You know very well that’s our last linen. What if another patient comes in?”
I apologized with my eyes.
I heard the dreaded sound of squeaky wheels carrying weight beyond its capacity. There came a paramedic wheeling in a bloody stretcher. I had forgotten about Sister N’s bloody prediction.
3 rained-on patients with bleeding faces. Why couldnt mother nature assist for once and allow the rain to wash away bloody, muddied faces?
2 had gotten into a fight and accidently hit a bystander with a broken bottle. the bystander had then retaliated and punched the wrong person in the face. Fists were flying, people were upset, eyes were blue. Everyone was screaming threats to each other, obviously heavily intoxicated. I said a few words to calm them down, no one really cared.
I didn’t even try to look for logic in that situation.I signed the barely carbonated EMS book, always wondering who can read the illegible writing which never reaches page 2 or 3.
“Sharp doc. Goodluck”. The paramedic evaporated, with my 0.7 energel pen. (Costs R30 a pen)
I searched for another pen. My spare gel pen had also said its last goodbye. I trekked to the old gentleman and Sister N. They were friends now, talking and chatting. Sister N had cleaned and dressed the toe, his blood pressure had come down post pain medication. Everyone was happy. We booked a follow up appointment and he was on his way home.
Before I let her know of the 3 new patients, I politely asked for a spare pen. She side- eyed me and offered me a BIC with a broken tip that can only be strategically written with by pressing against the non-broken side. ( if you know, you know).
“By the way, we have 3 new patients. I think they need a talking-to. They’re drunk and bloody”.
Her eyes widened. I could sense a firm lecture coming on. I started jogging out.
“YHO! Three! Not even 2 or 1, 3..!?….. ” The jog turned into a run, toward our new patients, I needed extra time to write notes with this BIC on its last breath.
The BIC eventually broke, the ink ran, but the notes were complete.
But I was glad no one needed referral. Some light suturing and bandaging did the trick. The crowd was still screaming at each other and me in between. I knew Sister N was on her way, I smiled inside.
She came in with swift ferocity, eyeing everyone with her hands on her hips. The phone rang, a referral from a clinic so I left to take the call. But I heard snippets of Sister N’s lecture which went something like this.. “I wonder what your parents would say if they saw you like this and as for you, I know your father who works at so and so and i attended your grandfathers funeral last month, he is turning in his grave watching you behave like this.. And as for you, I know your mother, infact she is in my stokvel group..let me look for her on whatsapp.. and actually you, I know exactly where you live on the corner of so and so… Right let’s go, the police must open a case and this must go on your record… “
I heard begging and pleading and promises to change bad habits around.
I smiled. Sister N knew her people, her community and herself. And she took counselling to a whole new level, but I never complained because it always had a strong effect.