It was something as simple as a Coca Cola bottle that changed the trajectory of his life and set him on the road to becoming a celebrated doctor, harnessing his knowledge to make a difference to Covid-19 patients staring death in the face.
“Made in South Africa” the label on the Coke bottle said – and with just a few hundred rand in his pocket, he made his way across Africa alone, fleeing his war-torn homeland and eventually arriving at his destination.
He was only 17 years old.
Fast forward two-and-a-half decades and Pretoria-based Dr Emmanuel Taban is one of the country’s top pulmonologists who found himself making the news at the height of SA’s battle against the pandemic.
His inspiring story is the subject of a new book, The Boy Who Never Gave Up – a tale he decided had to be written because he felt not enough African stories of hope and courage were being told.
“That’s what motivated me,” he says. “Initially it was very difficult but I realised a story like mine needed to be told properly so I approached ghost writer Andrew Crofts to help me with the book. It took six months.”
His first attempt to have it published was rejected but his wife, Motheo, told him there was no time to fret over it – the first wave of Covid-19 was rising and people needed him.
“She said, ‘What if Covid was meant for you? Focus on your work. There’s no room now for you to go into a depression’.
“So I put my disappointment behind me to focus on my passion, which is my patients, and researching solutions for the virus.”
And he needed to do something fast as he’d already lost three patients to the virus.
“I decided, ‘No, I needed to look at their lungs – there’s something wrong, I want to see their lungs’.”
After observing that some Covid-19 deaths were caused by a build-up of mucus plugs which had become hard, blocking the air passages, he knew he had to try therapeutic bronchoscopy – a technique to suck out the mucus to allow the body to absorb oxygen. This method is often used for patients with lung cancer, collapsed lung or bleeding inside the lung.
He performed the first bronchoscopy on one of his Covid patients in May last year and has since done more than 120 procedures. Up to 85% of his patients, who would previously have been considered terminal, have survived.
This treatment, however, is only used for selected patients with extremely severe cases of Covid-19 who are on a mechanical ventilator for more than seven days.
Emmanuel has made it his life’s goal to ease the suffering of his patients and the contributions he’s made in his field saw him being named as one of the most influential Africans on the continent last year by London-based magazine New Africa.
A remarkable feat by anyone’s standards – but for a man with a background steeped in trauma, it’s nothing short of extraordinary.
Emmanuel was born on the floor of a mud hut in Juba, now the capital city of South Sudan.
The fourth-born of seven children, he was raised by a single mother, Phoebe, and recalls his childhood as a “joyful” time.
“We didn’t have any material possessions, but we were happy kids,” he says.
But Emmanuel’s childhood ended abruptly with the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1983 when the ruling military regime tried to impose sharia law as part of its policy to “Islamicise” all of Sudan.
By the time the war ended in 2005, two million people had been killed and four million displaced – including Emmanuel.
Even though he was only 14 when the war broke out, he was arrested by the military and accused of being a spy. He was jailed and tortured for two years before he managed the escape his captors.
He set off on foot for Nairobi, Kenya, to look for his uncle. “I spent several days on the road, walking with no water or food. It was very difficult. I didn’t choose to suffer – I simply didn’t have any other options.”
Emmanuel eventually found his uncle but was kicked out after just three days.
“He told me he had no place for me and I needed to go to a refugee camp. I was angry because I wanted to go to school like his kids, so I refused to go to the camp.”
It was then he came across the SA-made Coke bottle and decided to make his way to the country at the bottom of Africa.
Helped on his journey by the kindness of strangers and the generosity of Catholic missionaries, he finally reached SA after an 18-month trek.
“That’s when my second journey began.”
Still a teenager, homeless and penniless, he had no idea who to turn to. All he knew was the name of the Comboni Missionaries who work in both SA and Sudan so he found their number in the phone book and called them up.
The missionaries allowed him to stay with them and arranged for him to enrol at Jeppe Boys High, where he completed matric.
He then landed a bursary to study medicine at Medunsa, where he graduated before specialising first as a physician then as a specialist in lung disease at Wits University.
“Medicine was my destiny,” he says.
It’s also how he met his wife 11 years ago: Emmanuel and Motheo, a physiotherapist, met in the in the medical library at Steve Biko Academic Hospital. The couple are now both based at Midstream Mediclinic in Pretoria and have three daughters aged 10, seven and four. They’ve also adopted Emmanuel’s 13-year-old niece.
“We are a family of girls,” he says proudly.
Emmanuel has returned to South Sudan several times. His mother, a midwife, died in 2013 of malaria, and one of his brothers passed away in 2006 but the rest of his siblings all still live there.
However, it hasn’t all been about success and fulfilment for the good doctor. In June last year Emmanuel and Motheo were arrested while he was rushing to hospital to see a patient in intensive care unit.
They were pulled over and allegedly assaulted by police, who, Emmanuel writes in his book, had threatened to kill him “like George Floyd”. He was charged with assault, crossing a white line and reckless driving.
“I’ve never been so afraid in my life,” he says.
The charges against Emmanuel were recently withdrawn but Motheo has laid a complaint with police watchdog Ipid. The couple also considered laying a civil case against the cops but decided against it.
“We changed our minds,” he says, indicating the subject is closed and it’s time to move on.
There is little time for anything except work in Emmanuel’s life right now. He’s been putting in 14- to 16-hour days but still tries to make a point of going for a run three times a week.
“It’s what keeps me fit enough to work those long hours,” he says.
Shutting out the bad stuff in his life is what’s helped him be where he is today. “Never allow the system to decide your future,” he says. “If the system says no, you go to the next door. And even though it’s closed, push it gently or look through the keyhole. You’ll be surprised. You might see something.