Conversations with My Grandfather

I do not remember either of my grandfathers. I am named after my mother’s father, Basil the baker. My father’s father, John, owned a corner café in Alberton. I can imagine he would be very proud that one of his grandson’s is an orthopaedic surgeon.

He would open the store early in the morning and close late at night every day of the week, closing only briefly for Sunday lunch. At lunch he would have probably told his children that they must study and become professionals. Become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. Make money, but more importantly, have a life and be someone. Don’t slog all day behind the counter.

That is not why I became an orthopaedic surgeon, although one cannot discount the brainwashing effect generations of aspiration and desire to have children pass through university into a profession might have had. One cannot imagine their hunger for that, when they themselves had not even completed primary school and their dreams were vested in their children’s children.

If my grandfather was alive now as I write he would be opening the store. He would have woken up earlier, maybe at four or four thirty in the morning. He would not have had breakfast; perhaps he would have taken a cup of tea. Then he would have walked through the courtyard at the back of the house, down the steps, under the grapevine to open the store from behind. The back door opened into a kitchen, with a small veneered table with chrome legs. He might have taken his tea there.

My grandfather would be tired at the slog that faced him yet again. Worried about having to pay the suppliers, and calling in credit from customers who had no money but needed to pay. He would have been concerned about his daughter who was studying at university, who would later go on to become a lecturer. She was ahead of her time, but beyond vision for an immigrant from the dark days of Greece in the twenties and thirties.

If time and place were one, at the same time today I would be driving back from the hospital. I left at three in the morning after a call from my ward that one of my patients had died. He was only sixty, a pleasant Afrikaans gentleman that I had known as a patient for almost three years. A lecturer at the university. He had a knee replacement two days ago. Everything seemed to be going fine until I answered my phone this morning.

But today my grandfather would have me for company at five as I returned home. A specialist who earns money, has a life and is someone.  Today I was awake before him, and the price I pay to be honoured with my profession is beyond measure. How do I explain to him that I did everything right. That I am a good surgeon. That I care. That I had to phone my patient’s wife and tell her that husband had died, and she was alone from now on.

Wish that today my grandfather could make me a cup of tea at five in the morning, as he opens the store. Wish that we could compare notes about work.

Neither of us have any idea of what it is to wear the shoes that take us to work each day.

My shadow taking making a picture in the Namib Desert

Conversations about Ward Rounds

My father and I often started out opposite but ended up in the same place.

When he finished school he started pharmacy at university. After a year, he left that and changed to a B. Comm. His main business was building. When I finished school I started civil engineering. After two years I changed to medicine. Now I am a surgeon.

My father was a consummate visitor to the ill in hospital. He would diligently go visit friends and colleagues all over Johannesburg when they were in hospital. If it was a protracted illness he would sometimes go every day, or at least a few times a week. He would also stay in contact with the patient’s family and ensure they were not short of anything.

Once in the hospital he had the air of a doctor. Often he was in a suit and tie, so he looked professional. He would always introduce himself to the sister in charge, and I guess she would always remember him. He would question the sister about the comings and goings of the doctor in charge, and what he had said about the patient during the last round. When he left, he would always say goodbye to the sister.

He would greet the patient warmly. He had a stern face and would appear very concerned. He would enquire about their health, if there was any improvement, about their family, the children and their work. He would look at the charts, check the drip to ensure it was running and call the sister if there was a problem. X-rays and ECG’s made him raise his game and he would memorise the reports to discuss with doctors (and me later when I qualified).

He was doubly professional when he visited the sick in ICU. The charts were complex, there was often more than one line emanating from the patient’s body, and not all of them appeared to be flowing. Some even seemed to have blood pulsing as they measured blood pressure or some other vital function. Still, he never appeared flustered and always ended up reassuring the patient and any other visitors present.

Once I had moved to Durban and had be admitted for some surgery I really missed his visits. After he died and I had my left hand operated on in Cape Town I doubly missed him. Fortunately there I had a koumbaro and cousin come to visit me.

Unlike my father’s hospital visits my profession requires daily visits to my patients in hospital. I do not wear a jacket and tie. Except in my ward, I often have to look for the sister in charge. Over the years I have developed the ability to know when something is wrong and can sense the mental insecurities many of us present as patients. I have discovered the power of touch and not talking. Often a hug will reassure more than any words can, and will also stop another twenty questions.

My father and I ended up in the same place. He treated his hospital visits professionally. For me it is my profession.

Grasswhirl: Runner Up SAMA/MPS Photography Competition 2011