Lo le Roux – Travelling Midman (# 3)

Dr James Barry

Dr James Barry

Lo sits down next to Fanny to place a wet cloth on her forehead. “My Gramps was a strange man, Fanny. He drank a lot; but he taught me a few strange things – and maybe the strangest thing of all, is faith. In a way, when I think back, I realise that God uses simple folk to spread his message. The clever guys use big words, but Gramps lived his faith, he didn’t preach it. People looked at him and saw a drunkard – but in the hands of the Master, he was used to teach me how to believe.”

The contractions were now ten minutes apart and during the intervals, Lo chats away quietly. Precilla, who’d seen him in the bar the previous day, is quite astounded by the change in the little man. Yesterday he was obtuse, rude, unspeaking – and here he is, perfect bedside manner and all, reassuring Fanny. Yes, Precilla thinks, how wrong to look at people with human eyes. If only we were able to see what God sees… Maybe his passion is his life, after all.

“Gramps said one must never let go of hope, even if the odds are stacked against you. He taught me God will sometimes toss you a curve ball, something unexpected. That’s when you knuckle down and trust. Trust, hope and faith. Those three.” He pauses with a smile, “And of course, a drop of rum.”

***

Lo doesn’t tell them about the huge curve ball he had to handle.

Just before he finished his midwifery course, he applied for a permanent post at the teaching hospital. He had excelled in his studies, his practical work and knowledge were impeccable, and the way he worked with his patients received praise from all concerned.

But then there was Matron van Brakel, the demigoddess who ruled over the obstetrics wing with a rod of iron.

“A man? A man delivering babies in my unit? Over my dead body.”

Matron was as complex a person as Lo was. She worked in obstetrics for a very specific reason: she hated men. Way back, when she was eight years old, she had an unfortunate experience during a Sunday school camp – but that’s a story nobody knows much about and she’ll never divulge the details, either. Suffice to say, she decided to dedicate her life to suffering women after that weekend, and that’s why she reached her position as head of the Obstetrics Unit. Then in her early sixties, she was a good matron – if she only had women under her care. She accepted the male-dominated ranks of gynaecologists because that’s the way it was, but woe betide the doctor if he made a single mistake. The disciplinary hearings that she sat on, became legends that made young doctors think twice before considering a career in obstetrics.

It came as no surprise then, when the professor of obstetrics recommended Lo as a candidate for the midwifery course, that Matron van Brakel did everything in her power to make life difficult for the young Lo le Roux. She watched him like a hawk. She scrutinised his notes. She stood behind his back, breathing heavily into his neck, when she gave him the most difficult cases to handle. But, because he understood the anatomy of the pelvis so well, he came through – every time – much to the disappointment of his matron.

In her final act of defiance, she blocked his application to be appointed as a qualified member of her staff. And, because she felt humiliated at the professor’s obvious high regard for the young midwife, she used her influence to prevent him from being successful in his application to other hospitals.

Lo le Roux, qualified midwife, found himself unemployed despite his excellent academic record.

That’s when he became a midman. Travelling to the far-flung corners of the country and attending to ladies who wanted to give birth at home, he slowly built up a reputation as the-gynaecologist-without-the-degree. At least, he felt, he was going to where he was needed most and living out his passion. When a woman is in labour, neither the gender nor the looks of the helping hand mattered so much at all. His awkward appearance and lack of social skills were of no significance when a new mother held her precious baby in her arms, while her eyes shone with pride and gratitude. Those moments define Lo’s life, nothing else.

***

Now, next to Fanny’s bed, he’s not sure about this delivery. They’re hours away from the nearest hospital, he’s on his own, and the twins aren’t really in an optimal position for labour. If something goes wrong here, he knows, the Health Professional’s Council will hear about it – and then Matron van Brakel will  get her revenge by revoking his license to practice. Despite his confident appearance, he’s quietly contemplating ordering a helicopter to come and rescue the situation  – but there is no time. The babies are due any minute now, and no ER team is going to take the risk of delivering a breech in mid-flight. He will just have to see this through…

“Will it be all right, Lo?” Fanny’s voice  is as strained as Vetfaan’s face.

“Let me tell you a story…” He smiles down at her as he thinks back on a strange bit of history…

***

“Early in the 1800’s, a youth was determined to become a surgeon. With all manner of devious means, this was accomplished. Dr James Barry qualified in 1813 – at the age of eighteen. He became a military surgeon and legend has it that he took part in the Battle of Waterloo and spent time in India before coming to Cape Town in 1816.

“Well, he was a short, slight man, so he took to wearing hugely built-up shoes, never leaving the house unless dressed in his tailored military uniform..and his sabre, of course. His short temper was legendary, but his patients loved his kind manner next to their beds. The man and the doctor were two different personalities, you see?”

“Well, to get to the point: on a cold winter’s day he was called out to see a lady in labour. After examining her, he knew: mother and baby would die. Her pelvis would never accommodate the baby; obstruction would follow with the inevitable result.

“Barry made a bold decision then and there: he performed the first caesarian section in Africa on the 25th of July 1826. He had the consent of the worried father, Thomas Munnik, despite the local church’s disapproved of his endeavour to save mother and child. However, he went ahead and did the operation right there, in the Munnik home – without anaesthetic! Mother and baby survived the ordeal, and James Barry entered history.

“The thankful parents christened their son James Barry Munnik, who lived to the ripe old age of 75, and became the godfather of James Barry Munnik Herzog – JBM Herzog – the future prime minister of South Africa.

“Then the twist in the story…James Barry was Margaret Ann Bulkley, born in Ireland in 1789. He was a she, something only discovered after her death.

“Now, the reason I’m telling you this, is that (just like Gramps always said), you never give up hope. When you think you are facing an insurmountable obstacle, God provides the most wonderful answers in the most mysterious ways. That’s why you must now, in these hours, tell yourself positive things. You are going to have two boys. They will be all right. And I’ll do my damnest to see you with two babies in your arms tonight. Anything James Barry can do, I can do, too.”

***

Lo tells the story with animated hands and gestures, creating the scene so well that both Vetfaan and Fanny get carried away to forget – for a while – to worry about the imminent momentous changes in their lives.

“You tell it so well,” Fanny says, “as if you know the history by heart.”

Lo smiles down at her and strokes her hair. Then he says something strange.

“I should, dear Fanny.  I should. He is…very special to me.” He stops talking suddenly, as if he has said more than he should. Then the little man straightens up, bites his lower lip, and in his effeminate voice tells them it is time.

“Okay, Fanny, showtime…now let’s see what you can do.” He does a cursory examination before nodding. “Yep, Number One is on his way…

8 thoughts on “Lo le Roux – Travelling Midman (# 3)

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