A Missionary Doctor's Autobiography
From the Cape to Lesotho
Newlands, a suburb of Cape Town, was one of the wettest parts of South Africa, but it was also beautiful, lying behind Table mountain and only a few miles from the renowned Kirstenbosch botanical gardens. Living in a small flat, with a young baby and an interning husband was difficult, but Lilian coped very well.
Life as a young doctor was challenging, with so many skills to learn. Even a simple task such as setting up an i.v. infusion was something one didn't learn at medical school. Alternate nights I was "on call" which meant that I would only get a few hours of sleep, often interrupted by phone calls and some nights no sleep at all.
About midyear, we had a call to serve at Maluti Hospital after I completed my internship. Since there would be a month between jobs, I accepted an offer from a GP in the Goodwood area to do a three-week locum. This gave me a real taste of medical practice outside of a hospital and also gave us some money to a buy few things with which to set up home in the "mission field".
The day before we were due to take the train for Maluti, Mary, now 14 months old, developed severe gastro-enteritis and had to be admitted to the paediatric ward of the Groote Schuur hospital. This necessitated a complete change of plans - suitcases had to be retrieved from the station, telegrams had to be sent to Maluti and we had to find an inexpensive place to stay until Mary was fit to travel.
On the paediatrician's advice, we flew from Cape Town to Bloemfontein, then made the five-hour train journey to Ficksburg, where we expected someone from Maluti would be waiting for us. It seemed like a re-run of my arrival at Malamulo - stuck, with no means of communication with the destination. Finally I contacted Derek Abrams, the local chemist, who was a family friend, and he arranged transport for us to Maluti.
Dr Warren Staples and his wife Betty, were pleased to see us. "Why didn't you let us know you were coming?" they asked.
"I sent a telegram the day before yesterday" I replied. "Didn't you receive it?"
"No, maybe it will be in the mail which comes on the bus today."
This is what mission experience is all about - always expect the unexpected!
It was interesting to return to Maluti, as I knew the country, the people and the language. My parents had retired from mission service because of Dad's health and lived about 250 miles away, so we did not see them very often, due to my duties and the state of the roads.
I must explain about the roads. At that time, Lesotho had only one or two miles of tarred road and that only in Maseru, the capital. The rest of the country boasted a main road which went from northeast to south-west along the northern low-lands and a series of minor roads which passed southwards toward the base of the Maluti range. (I should explain that "Maluti" means mountains - like the Dutch "berg" - so the term "Maluti mountains" is really a tautology.) When the roads had been gravelled and graded, they were fine for a short while but soon became corrugated, potholed and rutted. Certain sections were particularly bad, especially after rain, when the road would become a sea of mud. On such occasions it was wise to put on tyre-chains before leaving home. Most rivers were crossed by fords, rather than bridges, making them impassable after a heavy rainstorm.
We were rather surprised to find that our accommodation was to be the housemother's flat. "Temporarily until your house is ready", but as it turned out, we were transferred before the house was completed. This flat was on the ground floor of the nurses' dormitory, so we would often hear dancing going on over our heads, to the accompaniment of African music from a wind up gramophone. The other half of the ground floor was the nurses' dining hall, which also served as their common room and on Sabbaths it became our church. So we had no excuse for being late for services.
When we first arrived, our flat had no kitchen and only a paraffin stove for cooking. This was soon replaced by a gas stove and we partitioned off a part of the lounge for a kitchen. The gas oven was rather temperamental and had to be lit by hand, right at the back. One day Lilian tried to light it after several unsuccessful attempts and there was an explosion, which singed her eyebrows and caused superficial burns but fortunately nothing worse, although some cans of food were knocked off the shelves!
It was from Dr Warren that I learned to do surgery. One of the first operations to learn was a Caesarean delivery, as a large percentage of the maternity cases were complicated. Most of the normal ones delivered at home. Warren had to go away for meetings shortly after I arrived and it was rather frightening to know that I was in charge and would have to deal with whatever came in! The nearest hospital was forty miles (two hours) away and the national hospital seventy miles (three to four hours). However, as I gained confidence, I began to enjoy surgery and seeing patients.
Dr Staples had a special interest in eye surgery and did many cataract operations. Patients would come from all over the country and even from South Africa. The theatre supervisor was a male nurse, Danie Bothma, who also helped out with seeing patients at the weekly clinics.
Beside the work at the hospital, we ran out-clinics in various outlaying areas. The furthest one was at Kolo mission, about 100 miles away, by road. A male nurse ran a regular dispensary and one of the doctors would visit monthly. We left on a Sunday afternoon or evening, slept the night there, did a clinic all day Monday, leaving in the evening and getting back to the Hospital sometime during the night. Then we would have to be back to work as usual the next day.
The other out-clinics were held weekly in buildings improvised for the purpose. Taking a nurse and a cashier/dispenser, we would drive to the place, see the patients, give treatment and then return. Very ill patients or those requiring hospital treatment would be taken with us and then brought back on a later visit. Some of the "clinic buildings" were just grass shelters. In the winter, which was very cold, with snow on the Maluti, I used to feel sorry for the patients who had to get undressed to be examined. I was dressed with jersey, jacket and overcoat; and had to pull off my gloves in order to put my cold stethoscope on someone's exposed chest!
During the year that we were at Maluti, Mom wrote and said that Dad had severe circulatory problems in his legs, due to diabetes. He could not walk and the doctor had hinted that they might have to amputate his legs! Lilian and I decided that my parents would have to come and live with us. As a result of prayer and a vegetarian diet, combined with hydrotherapy, exercise and vitamin injections, Dad recovered, and was able to walk again. In fact he still had both feet when he died of coronary artery disease five years later!
That was also the year that we bought our first car - a second-hand Chevrolet. Besides using it for our own personal use, it often served as an ambulance and as a hearse on one occasion.
When plans were started to build a second-doctors' house, we studied the plans and suggested some minor alterations, which were agreed. When the house got up to window-top height, a telegram arrived: - "Union Committee appoints you to Kanye Hospital Soonest." It would be 33 years before we got to live in "our" house.