Conversations with Hippocrates

Long before I had an inkling that I wanted to study medicine and then be a doctor, when becoming an orthopaedic surgeon was still occupied in that part of my brain by a desire to become a game ranger, I dislocated my right shoulder. The injury dated back from primary school and was recurrent, popping out every few months. It was painful when it happened but my mother learnt how to put it back without hurting me, doing a gentle manoeuvre that engaged the joint and let it to slide back into place almost painlessly. Much further down the academic line and after putting other’s dislocated shoulders back I came to know that my mother was in fact using a well established technique, the Kocher Technique. Like all things in medicine, it was named after him because he published it in a journal, but in fact it was first described in Egyptian hieroglyphs 3000 years ago.

One year when I was fourteen I participated in the school gala. Everyone thought I should be a good swimmer as I was a good runner, but halfway down the lane at the municipal pool my right arm caught the floating lane divider and my shoulder popped out of joint. My father was there, talking to Rod Conacher, the principal of the school, but he was not watching. When my arm came out of joint it would stick up like I was asking a question in class. That is how I tread water in the middle of the pool. My mother jumped in to save me, because she was astute enough to see I could no longer swim and that my shoulder was out of joint.

As they waded toward me my mother later told me that Rod Conacher asked my father if Olga was also swimming in the gala. My father, who normally took every detail in at any function, had not noticed me floundering in the pool nor my mother wading toward me, clothes billowing in the water.

The worst part was when they got me to the edge of the pool and all the rescuers lined up, reaching to pull my dislocated arm that was asking the proverbial question in class. I screamed in pain and then remember resting against a small retaining wall, while my mother supported my arm. She was waiting for the spasm to subside before attempting a reduction, but before I knew it an orthopaedic surgeon, a big rugby type, a parent of one of the children, arrived. He promptly placed his foot in my armpit and pulled so hard I cried with pain and because of the spasm he struggled and worked up a sweat getting it in. He used the Hippocratic Technique but he had no feel for it. Normally the pain is reduced by some sedation. I heard the joint crunch into place and limped away sniffling with pain and from the near drowning.

Rod Conacher offered to give my mom a prize for life saving at the school prize giving later that year, but she declined. I thought they should give the orthopaedic surgeon a prize for butchery, but they declined.

The new Umhlanga Storm Water Pier

Conversations with Rod

I remember the day Rod Conacher died.  It was a hot summer in Astros, Greece. Glorious for a beach holiday with my father and brother and his children. We lived in the air conditioned flats and moved into the sea for the morning and sat under the thatch pergola of Costa’s psarotaverna for languid lunches.

It was a Monday when Mom told us Rory had called her about Rod’s passing. We had to tell dad. He was in 7th heaven on holiday in Greece with his sons and grandchildren. But he was fragile. He had had his defibrillator for two years and was coming to terms with the loss of his daughter. Just earlier in Greece he had met his confessor at Agio Dimitri, the church in Tripoli where his parents were married. He needed to rest in the morning heat as we climbed the hill that housed the old harbour houses of Astros, overlooking two beautiful bays. On Tuesday Peter and Nico came with us, in their shiny basket ball long shorts and fancy running shoes. We jogged a bit ahead of dad, and joined him on the way back to get fresh pastries from the bakery for breakfast.

On Wednesday dad and I went walking alone in the heat of the early morning. Sometimes we could talk easily, sometimes things were awkward. This was an awkward walk, and I convinced him to sit at a coffee shop on the beach along the way from Costa, to have an iced tea or frappe or something. Then I just blurted out that Rod had died.  I swear my father died before me in that moment. Yet he was so full of life. The same thing happened three months later. He was so full of life, at the 80th birthday celebration of his friend George Bizos, yet he died at 430 am the next morning.

Rod and my father met when my father was chairman of the governing body at Alberton High and Rod was appointed Headmaster. He was a breath of fresh air, a leader ahead of his time. My father and he shared a passion for life and people and learning. They both respected everyone, from cleaner to teacher to banker to grandparent. They both believed in people. They both harnessed the power of other people to improve the world.

Rod managed to get my father on a wilderness trail in Zululand with Jim Feely. My dad took over by sourcing fresh prawns and Rustenburg wine from a small village bottle store and they had a party in the bush not quite in keeping with the traditions of the Wilderness Leadership School. But in keeping with life!

He advised Rod on financial matters. Rod bought a Peugeot, after dad was so happy with his 504. He made Rod keep his first house when he moved to Pretoria as an Inspector, and saved him from selling t a loss when the market was down. They met every now and then, at a function or just to meet, and recharged each other’s batteries.

Rod moved on to become Rector at JCE, the College of Education. His secretary would treat me like a visiting professor as she called him on the intercom to advise him that a distinguished visitor dressed as a sloppy student was waiting for him. We would always have tea and chat, and he would hold a real conversation.

Then he became head of Crawford College and developed the private system into what it is today. The last I saw him was in 2002 when he attended my 40th birthday at Mbona. He died in 2009. In those 7 years we shared conversations and spoke of dreams of finding the Lost City of the Kalahari.

A part of me died too when he died.