Someone's job

2010-09-01 00:00

I AM grateful to the strikers. Not that I defend the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) whose choice of the pre-matric period to down chalk in order to add pressure to its demands shows a particularly heartless cynicism. Nor do I defend nurses who abandon sick babies to die or prevent the elderly and the Aids-ravaged from getting medication. I don’t defend the Tripartite Alliance, each wing trying to outmuscle the other in the struggle for African National Congress ascendancy and each seeking to lay the blood of the dead and the dest­royed hopes of the youth on the heads of the other. It makes one despondent about human nature. The strike has brought out the worst in South Africans.

But it has also brought out the best, as volunteers from all groups rally to fill the gaps. At least in my own case, the strike has reopened my eyes to the realties that others face daily. I’m not much of a volunteer myself, but spousal pressure dragooned me, on a free Saturday morning, to offer my limited services to the Umgeni Waterfall Hospital. It’s a somewhat forgotten little unit, housed in an old army barracks.

In typical army hutments, children and adults of varying degrees of mental incapacity are cared for. Normally there is a nursing staff of around 75. But at the time of writing most of these are outside the gates, red-shirted, singing merry songs and waving knobkerries.

Inside is a skeleton staff of matrons, agency nurses and volunteers from the local community. Some young black women have given their time, together with some elderly white women from wealthier suburbs, and a number of the adult high-level patients have come to help.

I am assigned to one of the children’s wards. It is years since I have been in those children’s wards. I had forgotten how heart-wrenching it is. Hyd­rocephalic children, eight or nine years old, still unable to stand, or walk, or speak. Severely mentally handicapped children who live their lives in cots, the top of the cot caged in to prevent them from escaping.

Some of the children sleep most of the day. Others stare into empty space. In a barred-off section a boy plays endlessly with a piece of rope, his pants around his ankles, while his friend huddles under a blanket on the floor. One boy in his cage grunts as you approach and you touch him warily because he bites. Another walks around, his face wreathed in smiling dimples, but in attempted conversation it becomes clear he does not understand words and the smile is little more than a puppy wagging its tail. A little girl with skeletal legs stumps after you, scratching at you to gain your attention, but you have no idea what she wants. Perhaps all she wants is for you to notice her.

The children are dressed in a motley assortment of cast-off clothes. The nurses, we are told, often cream off the best of the donated clothes for their own families. But truly it doesn’t matter, the children in the ward have no awareness of their clothes. Some must be dressed in all-in-one combinations lest they pick at their nappies and pull them off. Part of you wonders how God can allow them to live like that. Should we not “play God” and use our medical skills to end their lives with some merciful drug? Is it humane? Are they even human?

And then comes feeding time. And eyes light up. And eager little mouths open for each spoonful. And as you ruffle their hair in affection, they smile and gurgle at you. The mood of the ward is lifted. One or two children can feed themselves. The adult patients from other wards put us to shame with their matter-of-fact competence as they feed those who cannot.

A father comes to visit. His hydrocephalic daughter, despite her recently soiled nappy (there has not been time to change her before her father arrives) breaks into shouts of joyful laughter. She cannot speak or understand words but she knows her dad and is transported to see him. He blanches at the nappy (it seems Zulu faces can go pale too) but once she is washed and clean again, father and daughter spend a happy few minutes hugging each other.

It seems that, after all, their lives do have some quality, joy and humanness. Not all have parents who visit, but all of them respond to affection, to voices and to smiles. And they are clearly expecting nothing but kindness from those around them. There is no hint of fear. None of them cower or flinch as a person approaches.

Clearly, therefore, the chanting nurses outside the gates in more normal times have affectionate relationships with them. The children have learnt to expect kindness and gentleness.

I am grateful to the nurses. I am grateful that their strike has allowed me to see how deeply vulnerable and dependent on our care mentally handicapped people are. I am grateful to be reminded of joy and humanness where I did not expect to find it. And, above all, I am grateful that day by day and year by year, those nurses patiently feed and wash and clothe in human dignity those little ones who otherwise don’t feature in our consciousness.

• Ron Nicolson is a retired Anglican priest.

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