Madwaleni Hospital has been my job and my home for just over three years now. It has been undoubtedly the most memorable, rewarding and special time of both Jade and my lives. The richness of friendship shared with the most wonderful people who all share a common calling. The vibrancy of a community of diverse but dependently connected people that has flourished from a handful of doctors to a myriad of different walks of life. There is such joy in the hope we all share for the place as we see our dreams unfolding, while enduring perpetual challenges that seek to, but never seem to snuff out the flame. We get to escape so many of the distractions of city life, living rather the life of full, but quiet rural living. I have found so much joy in things I hadn’t ever imagined, like planting indigenous plants and trees and watching them grow.
Together with Jade, building a home and a family to fill it with, has been a taproot deep into the ground that sees me through many a difficult day or week. Our home is a very special place for us, one that we love sharing with as many people as possible – it makes us so happy, and I know I can take a lot less than half the credit for it, thanks to the most incredible person I get to come home to several times a day. What I can take at least half the credit for, is our two kids, Sam and Rosa, who quite literally fill our lives to overflowing, sometimes quite overwhelmingly so.
Work cannot become everything. It’s a lesson we’ve all learned, mostly the hard way. Life outside of work is so easily neglected but is the thing that keeps your heart and soul energised. Food, music, running alone, running with mates, ultimate frisbee games, braai’s, movie nights, weekends away exploring the beautiful Transkei, date nights, church gatherings, gardening, building decks and pizza ovens, cups of tea, good coffee, cold beers, delicious wine and most of all conversations about things other than work are some of things that keep me in the game. It’s times when I’ve had to or inadvertently sacrificed these things that life has become the most difficult.
It has been a time of self-discovery. One cannot fully describe the transition that takes place when one is plucked out of one’s comfort zones, friends, family, routines, comforts, spiritual support systems and mentors and left to figure things out for oneself. Removed from the business of church life with all its meetings, sermons and high profile, inspiring people, I found my faith wilted and neglected. How often do we ride the coat tails of other’s beliefs without the time or space to nurture the courage of one’s own true convictions?
However, what initially started as a downward spiral of uncertainty with many questions has progressed into a new, refreshing, Christian faith that is my own, a process that as a couple Jade and I have learned so much through, and I must add, have a long way to go still.
I get to work with incredible people – both colleagues and patients, who live in a world I am just barely starting to understand with all its rich culture and complicated belief systems. It is a community who are so far behind the front lines of equity, human rights and empowerment it is scary. While the fruits of post-apartheid democracy are still so far away, the disgruntled voices are becoming more audible with service delivery protests a regular occurrence.
Rural medicine in the Eastern Cape is a stormy sea, a beastly roller coaster ride of epic proportions with unnerving turns and dives that throw your whole world upside down to be turned back around in an instant. Initially these ups and downs really did throw me into a spin, but with time I have become accustomed to them and somehow one develops this ability to just stick it out, as things will probably work themselves out as they always seem to do. Along with the spins come exhilarating highs with a soul quenching feeling of fixing what’s wrong with the world and making a difference to people who need it so badly.
Not everyone can work in rural. Some don’t manage to accept the things they can’t change or that don’t work and become overwhelmed with everything that’s wrong, driving them soon towards a less diseased system. I’m not saying that apathy and acceptance is what’s needed, but it’s about picking one’s battles and keeping a positive outlook. Of course none of us get it right all the time and there is a constant pendulum swing between idealism and pessimism or worse still apathy.
I often get asked questions like, ‘So, what are you going to specialise in?’ or ‘How long are you going to stay at Mads?’ We came to Madwaleni for community service, a twelve month contract after which you are free to choose your own way (the department of health hasn’t quite got this concept yet though). Some time in our first month, Jade and I realised we had already decided in our hearts one year was never going to be enough. The Madwaleni bug had bitten, and has continued to grab onto our hearts, such that we now wonder how we will ever tear ourselves from this adventure. I sometimes get to catch up with friends who studied around the same time as me and find out what’s been going on in their lives. During these conversations, I used to feel like I’d been left behind, when hearing of the various specialist degrees people were enlisted in, or the city houses people had already bought. Fortunately I don’t get those feelings anymore, as while slightly alternative, the career path I’ve chosen for now is no short of exactly where I want to be. The above questions remain unanswered, but that’s okay. I like living in the now, enjoying what I’m doing without the distraction of what’s next. In my experience, medicine throws open doors the like and timing of which you probably wouldn’t expect, and I’m sure new and exciting career opportunities will come my way.
I sometimes think about how we’ve managed to do what we’ve done in the last three years. The coming together of so many variables resulting in something quite remarkable. No matter how long we’ve stayed, what we’ve built up always feels fragile, like a house of cards that regularly seems ominously poised, but it never falls down. There is the strong presence of a mastermind at work, leading us in the right direction, adding the right people at the right time. This leaves me feeling like I can take little credit for what has happened and confers a quiet confidence of the way forward even though it will inevitably continue to be an obstacle course with unforeseeable challenges.
So as I reflect on my Madwaleni journey I get the distinct feeling that for now there is no-where else to go and that our time here is far from over. I’m excited for what’s to come and most of all the people I get to share this adventure with, because after all life’s about loving people.