Chloe, my best friend, and I lay on the fold-out sofa in the Crescent’s lounge, the largest room in the flat on the west wing of the university-owned building. We lay in the dark, covered with a blanket, while a summer storm raged outside, a typical highveld storm trumpeting the start of our fourth year of medical school. We were about to start our obstetric block at Dingane hospital in the heart of KwaZulu Natal. I wished Chloe was as excited as I was.
A spear of jagged white split the sky and lit up Chloe’s hazel eyes, now wider than ever. She looked like a startled cat, with her tiny nose and delicate, triangular face. Her usually rosy cheeks were pale and she jumped as a crack of thunder rattled the windows. I laughed and she giggled nervously, sounding more like a teenager than a twenty-one-year old. She pulled the blanket higher, so the wool tickled my skin and I rubbed my nose, wishing for the millionth time I had a smaller conk. Smaller breasts. A smaller bum.
“You never did get around to telling me about the work you did over the holidays. On the mines…” Chloe said.
I wiggled under the blankets to get more comfortable. I’d been dying to tell her all about Welkom Mine Hospital, but Chloe usually hated talking about medicine. She seemed to hate all things medical. She’d have given up her studies the year we started clinical training if she hadn’t had a bursary, one that required her paying back every cent of the exorbitant fees already paid out if she quit.
“They hired me for two whole months. I scored more than three times what I’d earned working as a librarian and a care aid.” My two previous summer jobs had been fun, but the money I’d made hadn’t even covered the costs of our text books. “And it was a damn site better than carrying bed pans.”
Chloe laughed. “Yuck. Anything would be better than that. What was it like? At the mine?”
“It was fantastic. The nurses were great instructors. I stitched tons of wounds.” The miners had more than their fair share of accidents. Gold and profits first. Safety a poor second. “On Mondays I worked at the hospital in the STD clinic. Treating gonorrhoea. You won’t believe what they called me.”
“The miners. They called me Dr. Kipla Broek.” I laughed but Chloe didn’t join in.
“What do you mean?” She sounded sleepy.
“You know… Fanagalo.” Fanagalo was the language the miners used. A mixture of Afrikaans, English, and Zulu. A common language to improve communication with all the migrant labourers. “Kipla broek—take off your pants.” The nurses had had to tell me what it meant.
Chloe laughed then, and I joined in. Through the open window I could smell wet leaves and grass, and I tasted rain in the night air as drops splattered on the edge of the balcony.
“What was it like? You know…” she asked breathlessly. “Examining all those men.”
“Oh, it wasn’t just men. Women too. They’d come in on Mondays. Every week. Forty odd men and maybe five women, all of them laughing and chaffing each other. At least I think so.” I couldn’t speak Zulu or Xhosa but I could read body languages. “Anyway, they sure looked like they were having fun.”
“I didn’t think there were any women living at the hostels,” Chloe sounded surprised.
“Oh no. They don’t live at the hostels. They only allow men there. The women were prostitutes. We treated them so they didn’t have to go to our local hospital.”
“That’s awful.” Her voice was harsh.
“Not really. The women preferred the mine hospital. Our treatment. I can see why. The nurses I worked with had a damn site more experience than the white mine doctors. Anyway, we gave them preferential treatment. Called them in before the men and had them out in two ticks and a tango. With all the medicine they needed.” I’d loved being able to help them.
“But it was when they left that the real fun started. The nurse would call in each miner…” I sat up in the folded-out sofa and rested my head against the window frame. “The nurses were so great. We got on incredibly well. You can’t believe. Such a sense of humour. They were always teasing me.” I smiled, remembering Elliot, my favourite nurse, his face dead pan as he scratched his bristly chin, his gleaming eyes giving it away as he tested me, teasing me, seeing how far he could go before he’d embarrass me. Takes a lot to embarrass me so he had his work cut out for him.
“The miners were the same. Such a sense of humour. I’d sit at a desk and they’d file in one after another and stand in front of me. I’d tell them kipla broek. And then I’d say, ‘Ew, pack it away!’ Everyone outside my office could hear, and it always set them off laughing. When each patient left the room… the cheering and hooting, you can’t imagine…” I could still hear the waiting patients’ rowdy calls as they’d gambled on the two most obvious diagnoses, gonorrhoea or syphilis. “It was more like a bloody party than a medical clinic.”
“That’s the most horrible thing I’ve heard.”
I jerked back, my head hitting the window frame. “What? Why?” I rubbed the back of my head.
“The reason they’re getting so sick is because they’re all sleeping with the same few prostitutes. And with each other. God knows how many of them are going to get AIDS.”
I could feel a pulsing behind my head where I’d bumped it. Next to me, the curtain fluttered in the breeze. Drops of moisture blew in on the wind and settled on my arm and I shuddered. She was right, of course. Thousands of men stuck in hostels.
“They should be with their wives! Their families.” Chloe’s usually sweet voice was hard in her anger. “I don’t know how you could work there. I still have nightmares about Alexandra.” She sank further under her blanket.
I shuffled down on my back and bum until my head was on the pillow, then pulled the blanket up to my chin again. Alexandra Clinic was the place of our first exposure to clinical medicine, at the end of our third year. The clinic was a vital resource for the over 100 000 residents of Alexandra Township. The ten general practitioners working in Alexandra couldn’t possibly cope with the patient load.
The university was affiliated to the clinic which was run by a welfare organization. I’d been excited to work there. It was the first time we’d been allowed to treat patients on our own.
“Did I tell you about the panga wound I stitched?”
Chloe’s curls bounced as she shook her head.
“These two men came in after a fight. They’d spent most of the night at a shebeen and were plastered.” Shebeens were illegal drinking spots that sprouted up over the township, moving after raids from police from one person’s backyard, or garage, or even living room, to another. They were often run by women whose entrepreneurial skills were legendary.
“The one staggered in pouring blood over his head and face. He could hardly see where he was walking. He had the deepest wound I’ve ever seen. At first I tried to do some subcutaneous sutures, but with all the blood I couldn’t hold the tissue together and my fingers kept slipping. The nurse showed me how to do deep mattress sutures and they worked like a bomb.” The lighting in the small room was poor and I’d been too rushed to manage the delicate stitching we’d been taught at the Jo’burg Gen, especially while the patient bled out from vicious scalp wounds. I shivered with pride as I remembered how the wound had looked once I’d neatly sutured the edges together.
“All I remember,” Chloe said, “was the stench from the outhouses and the sewage pouring down the roads.”
“I still can’t believe how many people have to share one long drop.”
One outhouse was meant to be shared by two families, but too often six to eight families ended up sharing the one drop toilet. The drainage ditches were hopelessly inadequate for the effluent that ran like a river on the sides of the roads.
“I feel so sorry for those people,” she said. “Living in such awful conditions. No running water, except for communal taps. It’s a crime.”
“I hope Dingane Hospital isn’t going to be like Alex,” Chloe said.
“It’s a proper hospital. It’ll be fine.” Unlike Chloe, I was excited at the prospect. “We’ll catch oodles of babies. I just know it.” We needed forty deliveries to complete our block.
“I wouldn’t care if I never see a bloody delivery.” Chloe sounded miserable again and I couldn’t help worrying if she’d decide to leave medicine after all. I hoped not. I didn’t want to lose my best friend.
Chloe soon fell asleep, her breaths soft and even. Her parents had been pleased she’d chosen Wits as her university, but they were English, not like Dad. A true Afrikaner. He’d been furious when my acceptance letter from Wits had come.
I remember that day, Dad bounding from the dining room, over the sunken lounge to the entrance hall, his plaid flannel shirt shedding dog hair and pigeon feathers, his black hair falling from his side parting to cover part of his face, his stocky body moving with surprising speed, waving the letter in his hand. “What the fuck is this? What the fuck were you thinking?”
His tan had turned red and spittle flecked at the corners of his mouth. He’d cursed again and crumpled the paper, and then, as if to emphasize his anger, he’d torn it into pieces and thrown the fragments on the carpeted floor.
He’d stepped closer and I’d stumbled back, away from his smell of tobacco and Old Spice. My back scraped against the narrow brick wall dividing the entrance hall from the passage and I turned my head away. My breath caught in my throat and I leaned against the rough brick, tensing my muscles, holding onto the hardness I needed to ride this out.
Dad swung his right arm out and backhanded the Venus de Milo statue from her perch on the gleaming half moon marble table. Her head struck the lounge’s wooden door jamb and parted ways with her body. An unrecoverable injury, I thought, even for a goddess.
“Fuckit!” His face had fallen. “Now look what you’ve made me do.”
Mom appeared at the kitchen doorway, her hands raised and flapping downwards, as if trying to fan a flame. “Danie, calm down—”
Her words, as always, had the opposite effect. “Don’t tell me to calm down. My child’s not going to Jo’burg to mix with a lot of baboons.”
His words churned the acid building in my stomach. I always hated it when Dad spoke this way.
“I suppose this was your idea!” He strode towards my mother.
Mom’s eyes had widened and she’d stepped back into the kitchen, quickly pushing the door shut.
Dad’s fist punched through the wood, splintering it, making a twin hole next to the one he’d made a few weeks before. He’d screamed at the door. “No fucking chance in hell! Judy’s not going to some commie university. Fucking kaffirs and motherfucking kaffirboeties. Over my dead body.”
I’d picked up the broken pieces of the statue, my joints moving like wooden cogwheels, wondering if Dad would ever accept the idea of me studying at Wits. But he had. He was proud of me, his child, a child of parents who’d never completed their schooling.
I snuggled further into the blanket and smiled contentedly. I was sure Chloe and I would enjoy our time at Dingane Hospital. Sure she’d change her mind about medicine as Dad had about Wits.
Judy Dercksen is a family doctor, pain and PTSD consultant, and provincial family physician for British Columbia's ECHO for pain. She’s also been published in medical journals, The Tyee, Vancouver Sun, Emerge 2020, 101 Words and Piker Press. Her website is https://painimprovement.com. Judy recommends Pain BC as her charity of choice.