As a fifth year medical student at University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, I was one of the first on the scene when a double-decker bus carrying 72 high school students went off the causeway of a small suburban dam in March 1985. 42 children drowned that afternoon.
I lived opposite the Westdene Dam and was at home that Wednesday afternoon, having been up late the night before doing my emergency medicine attachment at Johannesburg Hospital’s Casualty Department. Hearing a woman yelling for help, I went outside to see a handful of people in the water, some clambering onto the just-submerged roof of a bus.
Diane Brown explains how writing a poetic family history brought her parents springing back to life.
A friend who rang on my birthday asked what I was doing. Writing a blog about Taking My Mother To The Opera, about dementia and brain damage, I said, so a nice cheery day.
In truth, I found writing about my parents difficult and sad at times but also funny and strangely joyful. Dementia had taken some of my mother away and my father had died by the time I began to assemble the book with old and new poems. It became a way of re-engaging with them as they miraculously sprang back to life.”
When I was straight out of university I headed to Korea for the English teaching experience, now a rite of passage for many. Later I returned for a second year, and since then have continued to visit regularly. Korea is part of me. Every time the plane starts flying low over the ridges of Kumgang or Taebaek, however, apprehension sets in: the land is so beautiful, yet a haze of grime often pervades; apartment buildings, vehicles and construction projects cluster in the valleys between the lovely mountain peaks as the Asian tiger languidly stretches out. Lonely Planet concedes that Busan, the second city, is little more than a “concrete jungle”.
The question of the propriety of teaching women medical students first came before the medical staff at Dunedin hospital in 1891. If the decision had been left to them, Emily Siedeberg, New Zealand’s first woman doctor, might well have not been able to pursue her chosen field. Having been admitted to study medicine at the University of Otago, Emily Siedeberg wrote to the Trustees of the hospital to enquire if there was any objection to her attending the hospital as a medical student. The trustees canvassed the opinions of the hospital staff who sent their responses in writing.
Tough, irritating, painful, sad, irritating, mystifying, ridiculous, absurd, terrifying: getting through the days can be a strange old business. Sometimes you could sit down and weep – indeed, there are times when this is exactly what’s required. Sometimes though, you just have to laugh.
One thing about this funny old thing called life is that we’re all in the same boat. We’re all absurd, we’re all ridiculous, we’re all scared and we’re all going to die. Sharing our vulnerability with a dose of good humour is, as it turns out, a healthy thing to do. Laughter has well documented physiological benefits. It lowers blood pressure, releases feel-good endorphins, stimulates the internal organs, improves short term memory and increases pain tolerance. Laughter is a fantastic natural social lubricant; it reduces hostilities, dismantles barriers and enhances relationships, whether personal,political or professional.
It has been a challenging few weeks, a time when I have been caught between competing professional and emotional obligations – conducting my mother-in-law’s funeral on the one hand, and grieving her death on the other. Funerals should be familiar territory for me. As a Presbyterian minister for over a decade, during which time I also had a period as a Hospice Chaplain, I conducted hundreds of funerals, reflecting and writing extensively on that aspect of my ministry.
Coordinating the funeral arrangements – both practical and pastoral – for my mother-in-law drew me back into a professional space I had left many years before. All in the midst of grieving for someone who had become my second mother, indeed a mother whom I had come to know and love and relate to for longer as an adult than I had my own mother, who had died 25 years earlier. My wife – a nurse – found herself facing a similar tension in the days leading up to her mother’s death. One cannot shake off one’s professional role and obligations any more than one can shake off the emotional ones.
I began working in healthcare when I was a student, before graduating into physiotherapy and, more latterly, working for ACC, Ministry of Health and a number of District Health Boards. That’s thirty-something years in total. Scary, how time flies.
I also write fiction. So, given my working life has been in healthcare, I suppose it was inevitable that at least one book would be set in the world of a hospital. After all: write what you know. This is the story of that book, and how I discovered that, despite a lifetime in the sector, I knew next to nothing about healthcare.