A simple African story

2011-01-05 00:00

Little old lady – shrunken by pain

And this invasive thing within

That daunts us –

You stand forlorn in a hospital gown

And I can do nothing to stop fate

As it takes us forward day by day

Towards …

News that all will be okay?

That they can vanquish this monster?

That it is benign and will go away?

All we can do as we sit here

Is hold thumbs and pray.

SITTING outside the MRI unit at Grey’s Hospital, I scrabbled in my handbag, clutched at a note book and wrote these words trying to busy myself, stem embarrassing tears, hide them from the gaze of strangers and somehow deal with the intolerable uncertainties of our predicament. We had just been told that Busisiwe, affectionately known as Boo by our family, our housekeeper and friend of 36 years, was probably suffering from a malignant growth pushing against her bile duct, causing a blockage and the pain that gnawed at her innards, and the strange brass colour of her eyes and nails and the jaundiced nausea that turned her away from nourishment.

“We don’t know for sure yet. Let’s not cry too soon,” I said to Patricia, her adult daughter. We nodded agreement, but our tears persisted surreptitiously behind tissues. It was Tuesday, August 24, 2010, three months after the pains had begun and a long journey of many hospital visits later. Still, not having a confirmed prognosis was becoming unbearable.

The pain had begun in June. She had visited her own doctors who had treated her for gastritis, which gave her some relief so that she toyi-toyiied joyfully with me and others during the Football World Cup, blowing our vuvuzelas on the pavement outside our firm’s premises while passing cars hooted jubilant greetings. We have shared so many personal and political ups and downs together. During the UDF-Inkatha wars she and her family slept in the mealie fields at night where she lived in the hills above Midmar Dam until I fetched them, chickens and all, with a willing and kindly police escort, until the danger was over.

In July the pain returned with a vengeance and we visited my GP, who referred her to Northdale Hospital for blood tests. She insisted I drop her off early at the bus terminus instead of the hospital lest I got caught in the traffic. So typical of Boo — always considerate of others, she has given herself in service and love to her own and our family all her life. But somehow ill luck has often been her reward. Why? Like that Saturday when she was turned away as the laboratory was closed. Inexplicably she was turned away on the Monday as well. Days of pain passed while we visited a private laboratory and then had a private ultrasound scan and returned to Northdale Hospital, this time armed with the tests, scan and determination.

Arriving at 6 am in the winter cold passages, we moved from queue to queue, from bench to bench and I, white madam with medical aid, experienced first hand the stolid, quiet patience­ of Africa as we waited in the crowds while names were called and files given out and the long queues moved, oh so slowly, but all in a friendly and orderly manner.

Where I waited, to ensure that this time she was given attention, I could study Boo’s tired face; her eyes closed, enduring the wait in silent dignity. Only 59, she looked much older in her pain. I remembered how rounded with health and vitality she had been when she first came to work for us at 23. We two grew into womanhood­ together. When my first son was born and was querulous with colic, and I beside myself with inexperience and tiredness, she took him from me and gently swung him onto her back where he settled, rocked contentedly by her warm body as she worked. And so began a lifelong partnership. Our children played together; with her help and care my boys grew tall; we both became Gogos; her grandchild went to a local school from our home and now ...

Waiting with Patricia, outside MRI, I put down the poem and began to make a schedule of the slow progress we were making towards diagnosis and treatment. Was it a Monday or a Tuesday when we eventually saw the doctor at noon at Northdale? A kindly, caring Indian man, dealing patiently with the never-ending line of patients, he listened to my anxious story and after the examination phoned a colleague at Grey’s. My relief was short-lived when I learnt that the referral had to wait days until the doctor’s clinic.

Once again we had arrived at 6 am and once again found so many others sitting in queues ahead of us, many wrapped in beautiful blankets against the biting winter cold. Once again we were treated by all staff with professional kindness, but the queue moved oh so slowly. Boo was admitted at 2 pm and placed on a drip. Three weeks after her first visit to hospital, her head and hands lay, at last, at rest above the clean hospital linen — those brown hands that had washed our clothes, cleaned our home, prepared our meals, lovingly cared for my children and stroked our pets.

And then just when she was ready to undergo explorative surgery, ironically on Friday the13th, Boo’s ill luck struck again, resonating like an ominous­ gong in the form of the strike. Patricia was told to take her home and bring her back days later. But on returning they were sent home again as the strike was still on. I was working in Durban at the time so Boo, in her weak state, had travelled by minibus taxi and on foot.

And now, Tuesday, August 24, a whole month after my doctor had referred her to Northdale, and three months after the pain had started, she was at last having a procedure to attempt to diagnose the blockage. She shuffled out from the scan, an old Gogo in her blue hospital gown, looking as if she had given up all hope. We had to wait until Monday for the results to be interpreted. Despondently we drove to her home in Mphophomeni­, still not knowing what this thing was that was sucking the life out of her and whether they could vanquish it.

On Friday morning I rushed back with my husband following a tearful phone call from Patricia saying that Boo was semi-conscious. When we arrived at Grey’s emergency the strike had rendered the hospital eerily quiet — not a soul in the deserted offices to give us her file and the rows of familiar chairs, usually filled with patients awaiting attention, were now empty and silent.

But clad incongruously in casual mufti dress to side-step the attention of strikers’ pickets, there was a dedicated skeleton staff of all races cheerfully going about their business and enabling Boo and others to be attended to. After yet another long wait, she again received unrushed, professional and sympathetic attention and once again was admitted at 2 pm. Nurses gathered around preparing her bed with clean sheets and even wiping down the metal with soap and water and trying to cheer her as a drip was applied once more. But too tired for smiles she sank, shrivelled and small, into the sheets. As I left along the long, usually shiny passages, I noticed a faint stale smell of urine and unemptied baskets of linen as the meagre staff battled to cope against the strike.

No longer able to stand the ignorance of not knowing, of waiting in dumb, silent queues for Boo’s fate to unfold, I approached the CEO, armed with my updated schedule of Boo’s long-suffering saga. Her doctor, a black man, was paged and explained carefully and kindly that Boo would remain in hospital until the strike was over and then be taken to Albert Luthuli Hospital in Durban to determine what exactly obstructed her bile duct and caused her discomfort. He drew a sketch for me to show how Grey’s would then put in a stent to allow the bile to flow out of her system.

The procedures were done on the September 10 and 11 and finally on the 13th, a lucky day this time, she could go home. A biopsy from a small mass restricting the bile duct was taken and we’ll receive the results in mid-October. And so we wait once more, a lay person with little medical knowledge and a simple Zulu woman, looked after by those who care, at no medical cost — except in time.

And now while spring blossom stirs youthfully in the city we are still not sure whether Boo too has a new lease on life … or not. It is a simple, recurring tale — could be told by many.

About the author

LEANNE Williamson is passionate about her family, home, special friends, animals, mountains, travel, reading and writing. She says, thanks to Boo’s wonderful support over the years, she has been able to pursue her passion for education in teaching, lecturing, publishing and human resource development. She is currently an HR Director.

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