I walked into medical casualty. The intake area was overflowing. There were crying mothers. Fragile old people clinging to oxygen canisters. Drunk men slinging sexist slurs. Beggars wearing all their belongings.
As I walk by, a young woman approaches me. She has been waiting since this morning. She needs to be seen. She has come very far for this appointment. I can hardly answer her in time (“I don’t know”) before the food trolley almost runs right over me.
My first shift has begun.
It was over a year ago that my clinical group and I were unleashed – young, inexperienced medical students in South Africa – unto the many patients in our hospital.
My country’s health care is flailing. There are simply not enough resources to provide public healthcare to the many in dire need. And there are many.
But we try.
I have delivered babies without protective clothing or visors or masks, because there weren’t any at the clinic. At least there were gloves – but about three sizes too big. It made the process more difficult (it is hard to gauge whether a cord is around a baby’s neck when latex is bunching up at your fingertips), but one learns to manage.
By far the most difficult has been telling a loved one, “There is nothing we can do for him” – not because the means don’t exist, but because they are simply not available in public care. Or perhaps because, if only they had had access to imaging studies in their home village, perhaps it would have been picked up earlier.
It is hard, because my patients look at me and I become the representative of a system that cannot take care of them. And can I expect any less of them? Not to be sad, not to be bitter?
Daily, I discharge patients back to homes where they are unhappy. Homes without running water.
I am sometimes asked if I will enter into private medicine when I finish my studies. My answer is always no. There will always be doctors willing to look after those who can pay. The poor need people who care for them, rather than people who just couldn’t break into the private sector.
I do believe that you measure the country’s wealth by the level of care its poorest receives. And I believe that if you can give a person great service despite their socio-economic status, you can give them that little bit of hope to keep trying; to keep pushing for better.
I have learnt some of my biggest life lessons from people who had nothing else to offer. This is how I try to bridge the gap.
About the guest blogger: Marichen is a medical student in South Africa. You should absolutely follow her journey at Whispers of a Barefoot Medical Student.
Photo: Submitted by author