Tag Archives: hospital

Chasing the Pavements of Love

download (4)Gerrie Smit has to hold on to the microphone to remain upright. Tonight – just like he’s done over the past week for his sold-out performances – he’s only miming the songs while his technician plays the CD from backstage. He simply can’t remember the words any more; and anyway, something strange has happened to his voice after the accident. Gone are those pure notes he could always manage with such ease, replaced by a rather unmelodious rasping – as if even his vocal chords forgot how to sing.

He saw doctors, of course. Several of them. Eventually Doctor Kleinhoven told him straight: it’s depression and he’ll have to take medication.

You haf had bad disappointment, yes? The voman you lof has married anoder man, no? And not just any man – a blind vun, too? So, my friend, you are depressed. Quite natural. It happens all the time. You haf to vork through dis, den tings vill become better.

He tried. He really did. Postponed his tour by one week, went for walks, wrote pages and pages in his diary. Spoke to a counsellor, even made an appointment with a pastor.

It didn’t help.

He couldn’t postpone his performances any longer; he needed the money and he didn’t want to alienate his fans. So here he is, in the church hall in Winburg, trying to look as if he’s singing. Who, he thinks, am I fooling?

The beautiful girl in the front row is pointing at him, her other hand elongating, stretching, to cover her mouth. Oddly, he realises, she seems horrified. Behind her a whole row of people stand tilted to one side, while the people behind them take turns to disappear for a few moments at a time.

Am I going mad? Surely what I’m seeing can’t be normal?

But it is. The beautiful girl now has little flames on her shoulders and she’s on her feet, shouting at him –  he can see her mouth move, but the words have to travel to the CD player and then he’ll hear it in his ears. He’ll just have to wait, that’s all, before he can hear her.

And then, starting from the ceiling, a black curtain is lowered between him and the audience, finally taking away the voice he has to follow. Without the need to mime, he sits down on the stage. He’s not sure if the performance is over, but at least he can relax now. The curtain keeps on coming until, at last, it settles over his face.

***

“What’s the history?” Doctor Snyman peers over his half-moon glasses at the intern. When will they ever learn? “You have to start with the history, dammit!”

She’s rather pretty but under Doctor Snyman’s gaze she feels stupid, even dirty. “Well. Um. A twenty-six year old Caucasian male, brought in unconscious by helicopter. Apparent use of antidepressants.” This is just about all she’s got, but she adds, “He won that talent competition in Cape town, sir. Sings beautifully.”

“I appreciate your vast background check.” Sarcasm dripping from every word. “What antidepressants? How much? When last? What accident?”

“Accident, sir?”

Snyman sighs theatrically, walks to the unconscious man, and parts the hair just above the left ear. “Fresh scar. Somebody bored a hole in his skull, Doctor, because they wanted to take something out. Neurosurgeons don’t usually do it for the fun, Doctor, they usually have a very good reason to take a drill to ventilate the brain. Usually, Doctor, it’s because the patient has had some bleeding inside the cranium. I do believe you know the condition?”

Thoroughly humiliated, the intern whispers, “A subdural haematoma?”

“Ah! A spark of intelligence! At last! There just may be hope for you, Doctor…” He’s forgotten her surname, but that doesn’t bother him. “So what, my dear medical colleague, does the CAT-scan show?”

“I…I…was waiting for your approval, sir.”

“May Hippocrates have mercy on me,” Snyman whispers in an awed voice.

***

The medical world works according to a strict hierarchy – it represents the original pecking order in it’s finest form. Not only does this influence the relationship between senior and junior members of the profession – it also relates to the management of patients. These days they use the term ‘triage’ to make a distinction between cases that need immediate attention and those that are less urgent.

And sometimes, due to so many factors, even the best laid plans of mice and men…

This is what happens to Gerrie Smit, the man with a golden voice and a bright future. While the intern frantically tries to arrange the CAT scan, Dr Bones (Radiologist on call) is justifying his surname with Miss Galore (never been in a Bond movie, but a rather aptly named Radiographist) in the little dressing cubicle of the scanner. When at last he answers the phone, he promises the distressed intern to do the scan within the next hour – he just has to finish the ‘urgent case’ he’s busy with.

And that results in Gerrie Smit finally having the scan that proves the intra-cerebral haemorrhage that has caused his confusion, headaches and inability to use his vocal chords properly. Despite Dr Snyman’s scathing remarks, it might have started with the initial trauma, and slowly became worse. Or, it might have been missed in the initial rush to drain the subdural bleeding. Medicine is, more often that is admitted, not the exact science people would like to believe it to be.

***

Dr Snyman lifts the segment of skull he’s just worked loose to inspect the severely swollen brain underneath.

images (18)“Now this, colleague, is the result of waiting too long. See that segment blue-black of brain over there: that’s slap-bang in Broca’s Area. That’s where we organise speech from, right?

“Now note the colour? That’s the colour of delay. Of not acting soon enough. That, Doctor, is the colour of negligence!”

Using a fine needle, he drains the accumulation of blood within the substance of the brain. Then, waiting patiently, he watches the affected area of the brain to see if the colour changes.

Colleague, this man may never speak again, thanks to that colour – it is the colour of silence.” Snyman stares at her pointedly; his implication all too clear; before starting to close up the skull.

***

Gerrie Smit swims upwards through the thick, impenetrable dark fog. Somewhere, a large metronome helps him to time his strokes – it is important that he keeps up the rhythm, but his arms keep falling behind on the tempo, which makes him bob up and down rather than progress upwards.

Then light! And a voice…

“Mister Smit? Gerrie! Are you awake?”

He knows he’s on the surface. He has to be.  Pavements don’t exist under the surface of…what? It’s white and it’s all around him, stretching away into the distance in all directions. And it’s soft. The though jolts him one rung higher on the conscious ladder. Surface? What surface?

“Mister Smit? Can you hear me?”

The metronome changes tone to become a regular, if faster ‘Beep – Beep…’

Light! He can see light…

“Mister Smit?’

Objects gel into reality while he tries to focus on something – anything. After what seems to be a century, he recognizes a neon light in the ceiling. Then the flickering screen of the cardiac monitor. Then a…a…yes, a drip stand.

His hands explore the endless pavement to find it soft – it’s a bed? A hospital bed with white sheets?

“Mister Smit…?”

A face: eyes, nose, mouth framed by long blond hair.

“I’m Doctor Grace Stroker. Can you hear me?

Yes! He wants to say the word, but it’s hiding somewhere in his head. He goes chasing after it, finally marshalling it towards his tongue with great effort. Say: ‘yes’…

Lips working carefully to say the word, Gerrie Smit wills the thought onwards  to find its target.

“Aargh…,” He pronounces the exact command from his brain clearly, deliberately – before the pavement reaches out to take him away once more.

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The King is Dead – Long Live the King

mandela“I think he’s gone,” Boggel says as he places the bottle of Cactus Jack on the counter. “Just a feeling, despite the president saying he’s a bit better.”

“Well, when I was in Upington to fetch that new carburettor for the tractor, everybody was talking about it. Some said it’s all a hoax, he isn’t that sick at all. Others were preparing to hold a wake in his memory. It’s so confusing.” Vetfaan gulps down his beer and reaches for a Cactus.

“But that Mac guy said he’s ill. Critically so. I heard him on the radio – and he’s the presidential spokesman, after all.”

“Ja, Precilla. Remember the little boy who cried wolf? He lied so much. nobody believed him in the end, even if he was speaking the truth.”

“My point, exactly.” Gertruida sighs. So many lies, so little to believe. “When they wanted to keep Nkadla secret, they passed a law to prevent us from finding out. They lied about the schools and the matric results. Loads of money disappear into already well-lined pockets. Our public hospitals are in such a bad shape, no minister ever gets admitted to to one. And where do you think the minister’s children gets schooled? There’s a good reason why they won’t set a foot in a government-run institution. 

“And, remember, our president said – just the other day – things have never been better in South Africa. That’s while they’re considering nationalising the mines and telling the public Zimbabwe is a good example for land reform.

“Meanwhile, people are raped and murdered at such a rate that the courts can’t keep up and the jails are overcrowded. Our farmers live in fear. The promised reduction in jobless people never materialised. Our Air Force is crippled because they can’t do maintenance on the planes, and our war ships are rusting away in the harbours.

“And yet the president makes jokes about the economy, telling journalists to write nice things about our country.”

“Gee, Boggel… Give me that bottle. Gertruida is talking me into a depression.”

“No, Vetfaan, it’s not me…it’s the government. We simply cannot believe them any more.”

Servaas raps the counter and points at his empty glass. “Well, next year we’ll have an election. Things will change.”

“Sure.” Kleinpiet shakes his head. “That’s what they believed in Zimbabwe, too.”

“But is Mister Mandela dead, or better? I still don’t know.”

“He died a long time ago, Servaas. Him and the dream of the Rainbow Nation. Remember the optimism during his term as president? That was his dream, his life – and over the last ten years, it all went up in smoke. And why? Because his legacy wasn’t what the government wanted. Instead, they allowed the police force to become an ill-disciplined group of people. The army was deployed all over the show, even to he DRC, where they lost soldiers because the president – in his wisdom – decided they had to protect interests there. What interests?

“And then the Guptas? You think Madiba would have done something like that?

“No, guys, Madiba had a dream…and it was kept alive on life-support for a while. It’s time to realise the dream never made it through Intensive Care. Those entrusted with the responsibility to sustain it, failed.”

“Agge nee, Gertruida! You’re generalising now. Not all of us feel that it’s hopeless.”

“Wake up, Kleinpiet. We’ve got to stop thinking that Madiba – in spite of his huge contribution – was the only one that could save the country. No, we need a new dream, a new hope. We need to rebuild a nation of honest, God-fearing people, who respect each other. We need responsible, accountable people in parliament, who are there to serve the masses, not exploit them. We need public servants to become just that: public servants.

“And that’s why we must be open and honest in our conversations with other people. They must know next year’s election is an opportunity to get back on track. Madiba won’t be there when the votes get counted, but we can keep his dream alive by honouring the ideals he tried to establish in our government.”

“And if that doesn’t happen?” Vetfaan raises an eyebrow, his face a picture of despair.

“Oh, that’s easy. Then the dream will become a nightmare, that’s all.”

The Painting

The hospital in Upington is like most hospitals you’ve ever been to. The almost-shiny floors, white walls and hushed tones leave you in no doubt that this is a place of hope and despair. Babies are born here. Old people die. It’s the same the world over.

Vetfaan sits quietly next to the freshly-made bed, gazing at the drawn face of Crazy Coetzee; the man with no fear. Once a strapping young man with long sideburns, a bushy moustache and sky–blue eyes; Crazy now resembles a skeletal scarecrow. A forlorn and lonely man on the singular journey we all have to face at some stage. For Crazy, the route involves a lot of pain and suffering.

“Remember that river?” Even his voice is fading. “It was bad.”

Yes Crazy. I remember. We were lucky to crawl away from that one. They were shooting at us from all sides – we should have been more careful. The river saved us.

When the mortars started, it wasn’t good enough to simply lie down flat or hide behind the ant heaps. Death came silently, suddenly, after the whoomph! of the mortar leaving the tube. We didn’t know where the next one would land. Then, after that terrible silent waiting, the explosion would rip through tree and flesh alike, destroying life with unbiased abandon. We watched the captain’s helmet sailing through the air to land, entangled, in the thorn tree behind us. We saw the last drops of blood dripping down on the green grass.

“It was you and me, Vetfaan. We were the only two left. And then you said we must make our way to the river.”

Twenty paces away, the river held the promise of escape. The firing had stopped; maybe they thought we were all dead. I said we must wait for dusk, but you shook your head. They’d come to scavenge for equipment and ammunition, you whispered. If we were to get out of there alive, we had to move immediately. You said I had to go first, you’d cover me.

“I’ve never seen anybody crawl so fast, so flat, so silently. You made it in record time.” The skin around the eyes crinkles to suggest a smile. Crazy used to have the most disarming smile in his younger years. It was a slow, honest type of smile, one that started in the eyes and ended with the lips arching upwards to expose a perfect set of teeth. Now, the pale-pink gums peek from behind the dry skin of his lips.

Vetfaan runs a hand over his face. This isn’t easy.

Yes, and when it was your turn, you almost made it. Almost. That’s when they shot you in the leg. I didn’t see the man with the gun until it was too late, but I had him running away with a well-aimed shot past his head. It gave me time to crawl out to fetch you.

“Yes, that river. It saved us. Once across, we were safe. I’ll always thank you for that.”

But at what cost? You lost a leg and tried to make a living as an artist. People looked at your work and agreed it had a lot of merit. But it was the graphic detail that made them buy paintings of flowers and portraits by other artists instead, Crazy. Nobody wanted to hang broken soldiers on their walls. I told you so; but you said those pictures are in your head and they had to come out. You said your life can’t be normal as long as those pictures remained in your mind. In fact, you mentioned that it wasn’t just your body that was crippled…the mental damage was more destructive than the physical problem. 

“I finished my last painting a week ago, Vetfaan. I want you to have it.”

Straining from the effort, Crazy reaches for the bell-button. In the duty room, a soft bong makes the nurse come over. She’s young and pretty, filling the uniform in a slightly provocative way. The green eyes are concerned.

“Now, Mister Coetzee?”

They must have discussed it beforehand. When he nods, she trots off to fetch a large package from the office. Brown paper with a string around it.  She holds it out to Vetfaan – it’s obviously a painting.

“Not now. Have a look when you’re home. I put in more detail in this one, specially for you.”

The tired eyes disappear behind the drooping eyelids.

“I need to sleep now, Vetfaan. Just doze off a little. Thanks for coming.”

Back home, Vetfaan puts the wrapped painting on his kitchen table, before getting a beer from his fridge. Then, with trembling fingers, he peels away the brown paper.

The painting was done with exquisite care. There’s no red in the picture, he notices immediately. It’s a river, quietly flowing under the bright sunshine, with green-green trees and lush undergrowth. Ferns flank the water, almost hiding the family of Egyptian geese in the shallows. Away on the horizon, a little herd of grazing Impalas seem so life-like, Vetfaan has to run his fingers over the painting to make sure it isn’t a print.

The focal point is the empty chair on the riverbank. It’s an old camping chair, with a single crutch on the ground next to it.

Vetfaan picks up the phone to call the hospital. Then, with a wry smile, he puts the instrument down. No need. Crazy has crossed his river.

He won’t need a crutch any longer.

I was so afraid Fernando
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die
And I’m not ashamed to say
The roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry

Father’s Day in the Garden…

“It’s Father’s Day,” Oudoom intoned, “like it is every day. We don’t need a date on the calendar for this to tell us which day it is. That’s why I’m not going to deliver a sermon today. No preaching about droughts and sin and all the things we all do wrong every day. Today I’m just going to tell you a story. I think it’ll say something to each and every one of us.”

Oudoom closed the Bible, took off his glasses and got down from the little pulpit. He started talking, like one would do to friends, as he walked up and down the aisle.

“My story has a title…”

*

Daddy’s gonna buy you a Dream to cling to…

Little Joey Small never had a family. Not a real one. He was supposed to be adopted, but his condition never allowed that. His teenage mother, never having seen him after the caesarean section, probably still believes he had a wonderful childhood, where children enjoyed life, played all day and got tucked into bed at night. Children that ate jelly babies and popcorn. In short – children that are healthy.

If you think about it, little Joey never was part of that picture. Maybe he never was a child at all. From the first day of his life, he was thrust into the adult world of hospitals and doctors and X-rays and machines that whirred and hissed softly next to his tiny bed.

Despite the failings of his frail body, Joey was an extremely intelligent boy. He started talking when he was a year old, and his vocabulary amazed the nurse who cared for him. He wormed his little tongue around words like dialysis and infusion to the delight of those at his bedside, while his bright blue eyes constantly scanned the room for new stuff. If the towels were changed, he’d point at them, or if another machine was pushed in, he’d lay there looking at it for a long time. His world was so small that he always was in complete control of his environment – nothing happened without his noticing it. Soon he started asking questions and at the age of three could explain all that was happening to him.

The local church brought Christmas presents every year. Usually he was the only child in the intensive care unit and people took special care to be nice to him, while the carols floated up to the window from the street outside. When he was four, he got a small CD-player with earphones and some old CD’s.

Now, this machine fascinated Joey. In contrast to the machines arrayed around his bed, this one was his. Not the hospital’s or the X-ray Department’s – his. He could fiddle with it as long as he wanted, play it forwards or backwards just like he liked, or turn it on or off whenever he felt like it. Nurses brought more CD’s. Doctors gave him some. Even Marsha, the cleaning lady, brought along a special CD – brand new. It was John Denver’s Whose garden was this?

Joey spent many hours in the company of John Denver. In the end he listened to one song over and over again – Love of the common people.

“Why do you like that song so much?” They often asked, and Joey would smile his special sad smile, push the Replay button and listen to it again.

Four months later, the inevitable deterioration finally announced the beginning of the end. With no family to care for him, the nursing staff rearranged their schedules so that someone would be at his bedside all the time. On his last evening, it was the same cleaning lady whose turn it was to sit with him.

“Play me my song?” His voice was soft, as if it was too tired to come out from his body.

She did. Only she attached the two little speakers, so they could both listen to it.

You know faith is your foundation
With a whole lot of love and a warm conversation
And many a prayer
Making you strong, where you belong

Living in the love of the common people
Smiles from the heart of a family man
Daddy’s goin’ to buy you a dream to cling to…

Joey pushed the Stop button.

“Daddy’s going to buy me a dream, Marsha, ” he said.

She didn’t understand. “But you have no daddy, Joey? You know that, don’t you?” She wasn’t being unkind at all; she just didn’t want him to expect a father to walk through the doors and be disappointed.

Joey smiled, pushed Replay, and listened to the song again.

“I have a Daddy. He just isn’t here right now. He’ll come when he’s good and ready.”

It was in the silent hours of the night that the cleaning lady saw him fading for the last time.

“Hush, now little Joey. Don’t be scared. I’m here.” She didn’t quite know what the right words would be.

He opened his eyes once more, smiled and said his Daddy has finally come. “It was my dream, Marsha. He bought it. Now I don’t need machines anymore.” He pushed the Stop button before he closed his eyes.

His last word was a whispered, happy, Daddy! He stretched out his two thin arms, and died with a smile.

Marsha walked over to the nursing station and told them Joey had passed away.

“His Daddy came,” she said. They understood.

*

Oudoom climbed back up the stairs, looked down at his small flock, and gave a small smile.

“The small bed in ICU is unoccupied now. The machines have been removed. Matron said it’s OK if the CD-player was kept in the bedside drawer. Maybe, she said, others will need the dream, too.”

He spread his arms wide for the blessing before they parted, hesitated for a second and said: “Come to think of it – we all do. It is His garden, isn’t it?”

Listen: http://www.lyricsask.com/artist-200001-J-Love_of_the_Common_People.html