Monday, 31 March 2008

Wherever you go...

I pull the sterile gloves over my gown sleeves and look at the nurse.

“Please could you…?” I ask shrugging my shoulders in the universal “my-sterile-gown-is-about-to-fall-off” gesture. She grins and slips around the bed to fumble for the poppers at the back. I eye her name badge. Startled – I glance at her. “Your name is Ndlovu?”


“But that is a Zulu name!”

“Yes!” Her face lights up. “You have been to South Africa?”

“I was working there last year.”

“Oh! Where were you working?”

“Hlabisa.” She claps her hands for joy, an enormous grin crossing her face.

“But I live near there. If you take the road from Mtuba to the hospital I live in a village on the right.”

I laugh at the incongruity of it. Here, in the dark at 2am, on a medical ward in an Oxford hospital, working with a Zulu nurse just I did for the last year. We talk animatedly about her home. “Did you train at Hlabisa?”

“No. I trained at Bethesda. Do you know it?”

“Oh yes – I visited a couple of times and worked there when I was a medical student.”

“That is amazing! Why did you go? Why would you want to go?” I talk about the experiences I had there. The terrible problems, the unnecessary suffering and death but also the passion and vibrancy of the life and the motivated dedicated people – both medical and non-medical – who worked so hard to make a creaky, groaning, cumbersome healthcare system deliver.

“Will you go back?” I ask her.

“One day. I do not want to stay here forever. Here they work you so much! Every day! And the money you earn you use up just living! It is so expensive. I will stay a few more years, then I will go home.”

Guiltily I suddenly remember the patient I am caring for. She has fallen asleep. I am putting in a central line. “We better get on with this,” I say. And suddenly I am dragged back from Africa to Oxford – I would not have been attempting this on a ward in Hlabisa: not because I couldn’t but because no one lived as long as this patient in South Africa.