‘Dr’ Tutu tries his hand at medicine

2013-09-15 14:00

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The Arch fulfils his childhood dream of becoming a doctor At 82, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has proved that one is never too old to learn.

The retired Anglican bishop, who rose to worldwide fame as an opponent of apartheid in the 1980s, fulfilled a childhood dream when he slipped into classes at Stellenbosch University’s medical school in August and earlier this month.

During the five lessons he attended at the university’s Tygerberg campus, Tutu learnt how to use a stethoscope, how to administer injections and drips and how to read the X-rays of lungs infected with TB.

Lecturers explained that an X-ray image showing a black lung meant good health, while a white organ implied disease.

Speaking from an overseas trip, Tutu joked: “Facetiously, I said: ‘Black is beautiful!’”

Tutu intended to keep his recent studies under wraps, but after some persuasion,he agreed to divulge details through his spokesperson, Roger Friedman, this week.

As a young boy, Tutu contracted TB and was hospitalised for 18 months.

The experience made a lasting impression on him, leaving him with dreams of becoming a doctor himself.

He was accepted to study medicine at Wits University in Joburg, but his father, a teacher, and his mother, who cooked and cleaned at a school for the blind, could not afford the fees.

This week, the director of the Desmond Tutu TB Centre, Professor Nulda Beyers of the department of paediatrics at Stellenbosch University, told City Press how Tutu’s late admission came about.

“He calls me ‘Ausi’ (Sotho for sister). So one day he said to me ‘Ausi, am I now too old to study this medicine thing?’ I thought this is something we can do for him. He wanted to be just a normal student. So we gave him a parking place close to the entrance. He even wore casual clothes.”

The Arch, as he’s known, was joined in the classroom by his driver, Mthunzi Gxashe.

And when his sixth-year classmates graduate in December, taking the Hippocratic Oath, Tutu will be a guest speaker – even though he won’t take the oath himself.

He described the classes as a “heartwarming racial bredie”, commenting on the significance of nonracial learning at a university once considered the intellectual cradle of apartheid.

“How amazingly this university, which had Dr (Hendrik) Verwoerd as a professor, has transformed,” he said. “The word is that the faculty is wonderfully supportive of students, especially from previously disadvantaged communities, so very few of them fail.”

The iconic leader was deeply moved by some of his experiences.

“We saw premature babies. One weighed 600 grams, about the weight of a margarine tub, smaller than an adult’s hand. Imagine

the size of such a baby’s organs. And yet many of these babies survive.”

He also learnt about the “kangaroo baby-care concept”. Tutu explained: “Previously in most hospitals, premature babies were placed in incubators. The kangaroo style is for the child to be strapped to the chest of a parent.

“I saw a hulk of a weightlifting father with a baby strapped to his immense broad chest. Amazing.”

Beyers said Tutu was awarded an honorary stethoscope after his studies, and was now considered an “honorary paediatrician”.

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