UK med students iron while the strike is hot

2010-09-08 00:00

STRIKES are awful news, especially when they prevent the care of patients. Edendale Hospital has still to recover completely from the nurses’ strikes of the late 20th century. The fitted carpet of the first-floor passage of the Grey’s Hospital administration block had barely lost the mustiness from its puerile soaking by taps left running during the 2008 public service strike when similar anonymous cowards repeated the tactic three weeks ago. The doctors’ strike last year changed relationships between colleagues forever.

The barbarism during the current strike, with no respect for the living and even the dead, is a new dimension. South Africa has to hang its head in shame, after the euphoria of an oustanding World Cup hosting.

However, adversity can result in small triumphs, and these are what this piece is about. The excellent pilots of the Red Cross Air Mercy Service (AMS) have been flying in army doctors and paramedics to assist at peripheral hospitals, and AMS driver Meshach Nehemiah has been transporting outpatients all over the province in the vehicle used for outreach visits from Pietermaritzburg. On August 26, Durban-base manager Kogie Naidoo phoned. Manguzi Hospital, tucked into the north-eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal almost on the Mozambique border, was on its knees with six doctors virtually the only personnel available to run the place. Were there potential volunteers who could be flown in from the next day onwards?

An unusually large group of elective students was based at Grey’s Hospital: seven UK fourth-year medical undergraduates from Southampton Medical School, whose first professor of medicine was a South African, Ralph Wright. One posed the problem to the students, emphasising the voluntary nature of a response, and stressing that safety was paramount.

The Red Cross would withdraw the mission should there be any threat to the wellbeing of personnel. Within half-an-hour of Kogie’s call, all seven had accepted the challenge: Christopher Bricogne, Emma Fradgley, Katie Evans, Lauren Dixon, Megan Galloway, Michael Lewis and Philippa Lilford.

They were flown from Oribi Airport to Manguzi and back on the Friday and Saturday. The Friday was not that busy, but they could be useful in a variety of ways. Saturday was hectic with even fewer staff members available, and the students ran the outpatients department, with local doctors popping in and out to supervise them. Two students returned to the UK on Sunday, and on Monday the remaining five flew in to Manguzi again. That evening they reported that three of them had run the laundry for a few hours to ensure clean bed linen for inpatients.

On September 1, four flew to Manguzi for a three-day stay over. They performed whatever tasks were demanded of them. AMS flight co-ordinator Poppy Hansraj, with no medical or nursing training whatsoever, was in among them, boosting morale in her quietly determined way.

I met Bricogne, Evans, Lewis and Lilford on Friday evening, to sign them off, as local supervisor of elective students in internal medicine. They were tired but exhilarated. Hansraj had distributed the half-wing badges which Red Cross AMS had awarded them, and the students were wearing them, bursting with pride.

They told of a nurse who had lived in a ward for a week so that she could continue her work without facing intimidation at home, and of another resourceful nurse who dressed in a patient’s gown in order to get into the hospital past picketers at the gate. Their most pleasing comment was that they would like to work in South Africa once they had qualified as doctors.

South Africa can be very proud of the Red Cross AMS and the seven young students, and so can Southampton. Other volunteers have been taking on all sorts of roles, exemplified in Ron Nicolson’s article about uMngeni Hospital.

The Witness coverage of the strike has been responsible: the Editor’s front-page message alone must have had a major influence on public opinion in our region. The increasing number of brave nurses in mufti on the wards is restoring normality to city hospitals.

We live in interesting, occasionally inspiring, times.


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