While writing I am listening to Dozi, a troubadour who sings in Afrikaans and Zulu.
On Monday I attended the memorial service for my close friend, Johan Leuvennink, consultant psychiatrist, who died so suddenly. For the last two weeks I have been thinking about the paths we’re on and why these are so imperfect…
In December 2012 I had a knee replacement, necessary due to damage from playing rugby, jumping from aeroplanes and boulder hopping in canyons and on the Cape coast. It was 14 weeks before I could go back to work and where else would a knee recover more quickly than in the heat and dust of Africa. So we went to Zambia for teaching critical care and then to South Africa to visit family. As David Ball and Pete Armstrong returned from Lusaka to Dumfries I went south, with a stopover in Johannesburg. At O.R.Tambo’s Ocean Basket I ate Cape kingklip and calamari, with a glass of Durbanville chardonnay. My waiter was Pioneer, who recognised me from a visit the previous year, when about 10 of us descended on them for a meal. He asked me in detail what I did and so on, and then said “You have the greatest job. Not only are you able to save people’s lives, but you actually teach others to do the same“. I was humbled by Pioneer’s insight and very thankful for his words at a time when I didn’t feel like going back to work.
Pioneer’s words led to some serious thinking. Why then was I dreading to go back to my NHS job after only 3 months off? Well, I always feel that way after experiencing something of the heart and soul of Africa, but this time it was worse. Some things happened around the three weeks we spent in Zambia and South Africa. I received emails about critical incidents in patient care that I could not have influenced, but I was still asked to comment. On the first day back home I was phoned about students who had complained and I was asked to respond, even though I had not met these students. Somehow there is this perception that, if we just complain enough and change systems constantly, we will one day reach perfection. NO, it ain’t gonna happen!
In Tanzania in 2009 our guide, Cyprian, described the caricatures of all the different nations that he had taken on safari. We laughed at how he described Afrikaners, Germans, French and Japanese clients. He said that the British were those who would say “thank you very much, it was the most amazing trip of my life”, but on the feedback form they will always write one thing that should be better or different. Make no mistake, I always take complaints or concerns of those who “suffer under surgeons” very seriously, but simple moaning leaves me cold. I have just bought a car and, although it is great to have a new toy, it is not perfect for my requirements. My job is not perfect, nor is anything else in my life. So what! I’m happily cruising along through this life and can only stand and stare at the miracles it brings every day, again and again. We meet people who have suffered unimaginable losses and with severe disability and sorrow, and they continue to inspire me. I think Africa accepts life’s imperfections more easily. That is why Rwanda could move on and why South Africa had a peaceful transition. You also see that in the total lack of self-consciousness in the girl with a long scar on her face, in the man wearing a woman’s blouse and in the patient with the large goitre or fungating cancer. So my job is not perfect but Pioneer is not far off, it has perfect opportunity, and for that I am forever grateful.
…I had known Johan since he was my student in Tygerberg Hospital. He stood out because he asked challenging questions. And then we met again in Dumfries and shared some good times together, usually in serious discussion. We walked a difficult road together. I still cannot believe that he is gone and the question that remains in my head is “What price do we pay for the work we do?” I know that surgeons have a high rate of untimely deaths, and am sure the same goes for psychiatrists.
This took me back to thinking about the National Geographic picture of Dr Zbigniew Religa and his patient, taken after he did the first heart transplant in Poland in 1987, which took 23 hours. In the picture Dr Religa sits and observes his patient’s vital signs, absolutely drained but still alert for anything that could go wrong, while an exhausted assistant sleeps in the corner. Twenty five years later the patient, Tadeusz Zytkiewicz, holds the same iconic photograph of “giving everything”, but Dr Religa, his surgeon, had died in 2007. The patient had outlived the surgeon.
…Three years ago I asked Johan if he could teach me to play the piano. I have no talent and no ear for music but wanted to learn to play one song. He took on this challenge with his usual enthusiasm. After months of patience from him and practice by me I was able to play the right hand of this one special song, and this is still all I can play…
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you…
I think that at the end there is only one question to answer and that is “Did you love enough?” I have no doubt that Johan could say “Yes, I did”….
Maybe perfection really lies in what we give, not in what we achieve.
NHS Dumfries & Galloway.