Wanting to be like Florence

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person.  Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us” – Albert Schweitzer

I am trying to recall how old I was when I declared; “when I am big I want to be a nurse”! I was seven or eight years old, when I became aware of a framed photograph on my father’s desk, a black and white image of an elderly man deep in thought or maybe prayer. His eyes are closed and his one hand gently covers his mouth. Yes I think he is praying!

“Who is that man, that one” I asked pointing to the photograph? Dr Albert Schweitzer” he responded. He then proceeded to tell me about this fascinating man who held four doctorates (Music, Philosophy, Theology and Medicine). I was too young to fully comprehend the gravitas of having not one, but four doctorates!

However, for me, the most fascinating part of the story was the fact that he started a hospital (at his own expense) in Lambarene on the Ongooue River, in French Equatorial Africa, now known as Gabon. I was so intrigued, if the truth be told; I believe that my desire to nurse was born by the telling and retelling of the story of Albert Schweitzer, combined with my father instilling in us the need to be of service to others.

For many years I held onto this desire, to nurse, to serve and  once qualified I would make my way to Dr Schweitzer’s hospital.

Childhood trauma and a dysfunctional family life played a huge role in my disastrous school career. During my final year at school I applied to Groote Schuur Hospital to embark on a career in nursing. My father panicked, he was terrified that I was going to leave home and make my way Lambarene. In consultation with the School Principal, he convinced me to work in a bank. I hated it so much, after a year and a bit I left and went to work at Matjiesfontein.

For many years, I felt lost and adrift, my self-confidence and self-belief was at an all-time low. To cut a very long story short, I received a very unusual job offer to work as a Liaison Officer for an Ambulance Rescue Service.

Now we’re talking!

Doctor Alan McMahon, the principal doctor on call in the Cape Metro Rescue Service pre hospital emergency medicine was a revolutionary; he transformed a mediocre ambulance transport fleet run by St John’s into an efficient, highly trained and well-equipped rescue unit.

This, as you can imagine, was ground breaking stuff so much so that the newly amalgamated Divisional Councils of Dias and Winterhoek’s Emergency Services opted to follow suit, and this is how my job was born. Ambulances, additional vehicles and equipment was upgraded, each ambulance carried various coloured medical boxes to deal with every emergency from burns, breaks, general wounds to birth and death. For instance the blue box carried everything needed for an emergency birth, from clamps to swaddling fabric as well as a tiny baby oxygen canister.

The “ambulance drivers” as they were known, underwent extensive training in emergency medicine designed and compiled and presented by Dr McMahon in Cape Town. The course was intense in that is was physically and mentally very demanding. My responsibilities included arranging transport, accommodation and other incidentals for ambulance personnel to attend these training courses. Dr McMahon was not amused that I (a woman) was appointed to work in an emergency unit. He told me in no uncertain terms that this was not a place for woman; I retorted angrily that it was. The Divisional Council of Dias appointed several women ambulance personnel who dispelled the myth that woman did not possess the physical prowess to efficiently fulfil their task at attending to emergency situations. The other ground breaking rule was that the ambulance service served everybody, equally.  There was no such thing as segregated ambulances.

One day I received radio communication from one of our ambulance personnel, noti­fiyng me that on arrival at a residential home in Seaview the patient refused to be assisted by a person of colour, he wanted a “white” ambulance despatched. I said: “leave him, explain to him he gets into the ambulance despatched or nothing.” The patient, got the message loud and clear.

I was also responsible for assisting in the placement of tenders for equipment like the “jaws of life”. I was so fascinated with this piece of equipment and the fact that it was used to cut through mangled car parts to save a life that I insisted on attending the training programmes. Even though it was far too heavy and cumbersome for me to hold or even operate, I could assist in planning and directing the rescue operation. The council very wisely decided that we needed to purchase the latest model armed with my newfound knowledge, I confidently phoned various medical equipment companies in an effort to upgrade our “jaws”.

A representative from a particular company made an appointment to see me. Upon arrival he informed me that he wished to deal exclusively with a male member of staff. I said “sure” and sent him off to see my Manager, who promptly booted him out of his office and sent him back to me.  Oh, the look on his face.

Apart from all the administrative duties I was required to perform, a highlight was being able to work with an ambulance crew over weekends. It was so exciting, at times heart-breaking and sometimes just darn scary.

I recall attending a terrible scene of a head on collision between a truck and a car on the Olifantskop Pass. The driver of the car was trapped in a mangled wreck, the situation was terrifying, as we were also aware of the fact he needed urgent life-saving attention. A drip was inserted; we secured his neck with a brace. I was small enough to make my way into the wreckage, position myself under the driver by securing and protecting his upper body by cradling him, thus keeping him stable, because his lower body was trapped and mangled in the wreckage, the “Jaws of Life” was then used to free this man. This whole operation was very nerve-wracking, loud and intense. Very sadly he passed away a few hours later.

I have many wonderful, happy, sad and terrifying memories of my time spent with a group of dedicated men and women, however one abiding memory is of assisting in the control room when an ambulance crew member radioed in to request that an extra “blue” baby box be despatched. Much excitement, they were dealing with an emergency birth of not one baby, but two. A traffic officer was duly despatched with said “blue” box.

I will always cherish my time spent with those hard working, kind hearted (pretending to be hard and tough), were reduced to tears when they had to deal with a little child, my one in a million heroes. I will never forget the first time I had to deal with someone dying; sadly I never got to witness a “BBA” code name for Baby Born In Ambulance.

I did not get to follow in Florence’s footsteps neither did I get to work for Dr Schweitzer, however I fulfilled my desire to nurse, to care for and to be of service.

This article is dedicated to the men and women who serve in the emergency services.

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  • Gail Charalambous

    Thank you so much Sanette

  • Terence

    This is the Gail I thought I knew from our school days.
    You are an amazing human being.
    Look forward to getting to know you better.

    • Gail Charalambous

      Thank you Terry and I feel so privileged to know you, my longtime friend.

  • Thats our Gail – a person living a life dedicated to serving others – BRAVO

  • Sanette Cavallari

    Fascinating !