Not what the doctor ordered

Half a lifetime ago (literally), I was privileged to start my medical studies at the (then) University of the Orange Free State. A common joke doing the rounds at that time was that there were no oranges, nothing was free and everything was in quite a state. But the medical school was great. The facilities were superbly equipped and the lecturers were – for the most part – academically brilliant. But more than that – not only were most of my seniors good doctors, many of them were also Good doctors (if you catch what I’m trying to say). They were people working from the heart as well as from the mind.

I was fortunate to get to know a number of these Good doctors on a personal level. To this day I am in touch with many of them (and quite a few of them are on this mailing list). These mentors meant a lot to me at university and beyond. I owe them a great debt.

And yet.

Despite the academic excellence and the good moral input I received at medical school, there is something I was not taught. In fact, I do not think anyone (mentors included) at my medical school really WANTED me to learn this.

Actually, I don’t blame them. I don’t really want anyone to learn it, either. But we all sit the course sooner or later.

You see, while I was learning a lot ABOUT disease, no one could teach me what it meant to BE ill. No one in his (her?) right mind wishes illness on another person. Still, there is a vast gap between knowing about disease and knowing a disease from the inside. How do you cross that gap?

By grace, I managed to reach adulthood more or less on a trot, with relatively few serious health scares along the way. However, once I left medical school, the weather report changed from “Mostly sunny and warm” to “Cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms.” During my internship, working my average 100 hours a week (as most interns did in those years), my immune system crashed. If you’re a sick doctor, it means your colleagues have to work even harder to make up for it (hint: everyone gets a bit grumpy with you). It is humbling not to be able to give all you want to give.

Doing my Masters degree the next year, I had my first eye bleed, out of the blue. This visitor came back unannounced many times in the next years, leaving me with barely enough vision to make a trip to Clifton beach worthwhile. This slowed me down a little bit more.

My immune woes turned into something halfway between yuppie flu and something slightly more painful. Again, more time to smell the flowers crawling by.

Then came a hip fracture with a romantic twist (the fracture provided the – rather comical – back”drop” to ask my future parents-in-law for the hand of their daughter in marriage). That hip cost me six months in bed (sadly, without the future wife to keep me company). Followed, some years later, by major back surgery – three more months out of action. By this time, the snails were shrieking past me like greased lightning.

Every violation of my bodily integrity felt like a small death (translation: every time I got stuffed six-love I felt a bit like crying). With every knock, your dreams get downsized a bit, first from XXL to XL and eventually all the way to XXS – about as big as a boxing glove for a mosquito.

But in all this, I learnt so many things, things you cannot learn from text books, clinical practise or even good mentors. Though my mentors did not want to see me ill, they lit a path to a new way of knowing, a path each person has to walk alone (and yet not alone).

I learnt that finding your identity (and your joy) in being healthy was a waste of time.

My body became my lab, where I learnt novel ways of treating diseases.

I could now identify with so many of my patients at levels I could never have imagined before.

I learnt to be content with what I had, rather than dream about what I didn’t have or should have had.

I learnt (a little) to trust other people to do the things I wanted to, but couldn’t. I still fail this lesson more often than not (= daily), but at least there has been some progress.

Each of my mentors carries his or her own griefs and struggles. Struggles for which they found (and still find) no answers in themselves. But that is precisely what made them wise and good beyond their knowledge. The humble reluctance to profess complete knowledge may be academic suicide, but it is the gateway to wisdom. In grief, we get to know ourselves face to face. By knowing themselves, they knew that they did not know. They learnt that they hadn’t learnt – which meant they never stopped learning.

And so I am honoured to follow in their steps: to know myself for who I truly am – broken, fallible, learning, trusting, persevering. To know that I do not know, but to hold a candle in the darkness for those who will follow. To connect the chain.

“To know that you do not know is the best.
To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.”
– Lao-tzu, “The Way of Lao-tzu” Chinese philosopher (604 BC – 531 BC)

To learn is to teach. To teach is to reach.

Keep up the struggle! Light the way! And connect with real people in a real way today.


Doc Frank