A doctor – young naïve and romantic
After 6 grueling academic years, I finally qualified as a medical doctor. Ahead of me lay the famous housemanship or internship year. These were the bad old days when junior doctors did 110-hour weeks with shifts sometimes lasting 36 hours or more. Strangely enough, things started to feel better. I suppose I had a little independence and could say what I liked to my own patients in my own time!
One ward round remains forever etched in my memory. It was the morning round after being up all night admitting patients to a very busy medical ward. The entourage of white-coated doctors arrived at the bed of a man in his mid-60s admitted for acute asthma. Connected to drips, he wheezed away as his doctor presented the case to the rest of us. He exuded anxiety and fear. A few practical decisions were made about his medical management. Asthma is usually a mild disease but on occasion can be fatal. Treatment options for physicians are limited – so not much to think about, especially when you are practising mechanistic medicine where the mind-body connection, at best is paid lip service. And there were 30 more cases to see before we could get started on the real work of the day. We moved down the row of beds and saw a few more cases. Then our medical registrar whispered to us: “Don’t all look at once,” she said, “but our asthmatic gentleman has made a rather sudden improvement!” So of course everyone looked over to his bed at the same time. Amazingly, he did look a lot better, chatting away to other patients. Then he saw us looking at him and at once he started to huff and puff again. Everyone on the ward round laughed, but was this merely funny? In reality I had just received my first lesson in holistic medicine. I had just seen, first-hand, the incredibly powerful effect the mind could have over the body. But why weren’t we using this? It was a good question; a question that would fuel my journey towards becoming a different sort of doctor altogether. A doctor, not merely a practitioner of medical science. A doctor that related to his patients, even loved them; a doctor like Uncle Louis.
Towards the end of my year as a junior intern, all my friends seemed to be jockeying for positions in the great medical rat race. All talk was about careers and new jobs. Many planned to go abroad. I made no plans, but with growing excitement I knew the end was in sight. I could get out of the clutches of hospital medicine and look for something else. But what?
Yoga, holism and homeopathy – the start of the adventure
I had always been interested in yoga and one day I was browsing in a shop called Aquarius in van der Merwe Street, Hillbrow, Johannesburg. There was a big box of books on sale and one of them had the title, Homoeopathy. I’d heard of homeopathy, mainly used by medical consultants to deride an over-cautious dose of medication. “That’s a homeopathic (with sneer) dose!” What struck me about this book is that a medical doctor had written it. I thought it was just quacks that used this stuff. It was on sale for next to nothing so I bought it and read it. Written by a Dr. Gordon-Ross it told the story of a doctor who had really enjoyed his work as a homeopathic GP. The book was very basic but what made me devour the book in one reading was the sheer love this doctor had for his patients, his work and for homoeopathy. Here was a doctor practicing medicine with passion!
As I got closer to the end of the book, I felt excited and hopeful. A certain energy had been re-awakened in me. It was the energy that had driven me to become a doctor. Whatever this homeopathy was, it resonated with me in a way nothing had done in 7 years of medical training. At the end of the book, which I’d read in semi-trance in one sitting over a few hours, the author invited any young doctor interested in learning more about homeopathy to write to the Faculty of Homeopathy in London. I sent off a letter, my first letter abroad. I didn’t have much. No job, no money, no career and no girlfriend. But I had hope and enthusiasm and somewhere deep inside myself, I felt blessed.
Following my heart – off to London
London was a revelation to me and I’m not talking about medicine. First of all it was wonderful to live in a country that was relatively free instead of a country run by a fearful, paranoid and racist minority government. London seduced me immediately as a wondrous cosmopolitan city, a magical blend of everything good in the world. Naïve perhaps, but for a 25 year old doctor, it’s a good thing to be idealistic when starting out in life. Cynicism can be reserved for one’s later years…
It was the glorious summer of 1982 and when the sun shines, England becomes a truly magnificent country. This is because most of the time a ceiling of dark clouds closes everyone in on this small island. When the skies are blue, infinity becomes available, flowers and pretty girls appear everywhere. People smile a lot more and say, “Isn’t it a nice day?” In South Africa and California, where such days are the norm, you don’t get this raising of mood on a fine day. To appreciate good weather, you need to suffer bad weather most of the time, it seems.
It wasn’t only the weather that cheered me up. I loved the cultural scene especially theatre and stand-up comedy. I went often to see theatre of a quality beyond my wildest dreams. I was so enamoured with the quality of theatre that I got a reputation for using too many superlatives. Shakespeare came alive for me in quite a new way and I even began to feel comfortable with iambic pentameter! Lacking the English touch for understatement I praised everything I saw until one day, the mother in the family with whom I was lodging said: “Brian, they are just actors doing their job. You do your job as a doctor and you may be doing something more important than they.” She had a point but I was unconvinced. There are many good doctors in the world but few excellent actors. Watch television every night and make up your own mind. My fascination with the theatre felt significant but I did not know why.