“If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” Nelson Mandela.
“Sshhh!” I slap my hand over Millicent’s mouth. My white skin lies stark as snow against the dark backdrop of her soft brown coloring, “They don’t know we’re still here,” I whisper.
Some of the staff had managed to escape through the back exits of the Old Maternity Hospital, when the riots reached our front doors. Millicent and I were trapped in the staff room collecting our bags after our shift had ended, when the day staff, and remainder of last night’s nurses were rounded up and forced to join the protestors outside.
Those who refused were summarily beaten… or shot.
She pulls my hand off her mouth, “But we can’t just leave our patient’s.”
“Will you ssshhhh, and no we won’t.”
None of us dreamed the violent riots would spill over into the city centers from the townships, but they did.
Now here we were. Exhausted from a rough night’s nursing, and trapped. Beyond those large doors at the entrance, protesting voices raged for higher wages. There was no asking nicely, or understanding that the local government, already plagued by corruption, had been gutted and had no money to pay the salary increases in any case.
“What is this country coming to?” Millicent shakes her head as large tears trek down her smooth chocolate cheeks.
“How long do you think it’ll be before help comes?” she asks and sniffs as the last flicker of hope dims in her eyes.
“I heard the night manager tell matron that most of the city has been barricaded off. No one gets out, and no-one gets in. Not until all demands are met. So, it’s anyone’s guess,” I say and Millicent’s cheeks pale to an off shade of grey.
“Come,” I say, “there’s no time for us to be afraid Millie. We’re their only hope. But first we must find a safe place,” I grab her hand and we dart down the hallway and toward the stairs.
The hospital, is as old as time itself and is evidence of the lack of care the local governments have for their infrastructure. There are gaps in the linoleum floors and paint is wilting off the walls like dead flowers. The beds are antiques and most of the tools are outdated.
We make our way out of the staff room and in to the nurse’s station. Windows which were cracked now lie shattered on the floor thanks to stones thrown by unhappy workers. Toilette paper and files are strewn and draped across the hall, medicine trolleys lie over turned, and destruction runs rampant.
Millicent shakes like the last remaining leaf on a tree in winter. I clench my chattering teeth as my adrenaline levels soar.
We are third year nursing students, halfway through our midwifery semester and stuck in the most volatile situation any person would dread. None of our training has prepared us for this.
I stick my head out of the door and make sure the hallway is deserted then squeeze Millicent’s hand and we tiptoe down the passage.
“Where are we going?” she hisses behind me.
“Downstairs, no one goes there anymore. I bet we’ll find some old beds and can get those women who are in labour comfortable and safe enough.”
We shoot past the theatre doors as a succession of loud bangs crack the silence from its insides.
Millicent lets out a yelp and I pull us into a darkened cove around the corner beneath the old staircase.
“What was that?” she sobs.
“Millie, please you have to keep quiet.” I plead, trying hard to swallow my own fear. I recognised those sharp bursts of death. When you grow up on a farm, you know the sound of a gunshot.
Our arms wrap around one another as we seek comfort and safety. Each shaking more than the other.
The flap and woosh of the theatre doors, as they fly open, echo into the empty corridor. I dare to peer around the corner. A man, dressed in dirty janitor overalls, steps into the passage, in his hand a large black revolver.
Oh God, the doctor and two medical students were performing an emergency caesarean section, those shots… I shake my head. I can’t think of that now. I must get us both into the basement and then think of a way to get the women, left to fend for themselves, in the labour ward down to the basement and hopefully deliver their babies without incident.
Angry footsteps make their way in our direction. We both hold our breath as the armed man walks past. He pushes open the front entrance door. A cacophony of squealing voices, clapping hands and stomping feet of those Toyi-toying as they protest, echo down the silent passage like a foreboding thunder.
Above the din I can make out another voice. I peer around the corner. It’s Matron. She stepped just inside the doorway and greets the gun wielding man in a language common to the area.
“I heard gun shots,” Matron says.
The janitors gravelly voice sends a shiver down my spine. “The bastards wouldn’t down tools. So, I downed them.”
Matron begins to speak but her voice is lost as she steps away and the door slams shut.
Millicent dissolves in to a ball of frantic tears and I try not to suffocate her as I once again press my hand against her mouth. Fear wraps it wicked fingers around my throat and horror floods my veins.
Dear God, may we get out of this alive!
I pull my friend toward me. “It’s going to be okay.”
Her sobs are muffled by my shoulder, but her grief and fear are shared, and I allow a few drops of pain to fall from my eyes.
Millicent Ndosi, is far from her home in Swaziland, and unlike me the absolute rebel and bane of my parents lives, she is the ever obedient child and her family’s first daughter to go to university. She has a passion for humanity such as I have never seen. But I fear as I look down at my beautiful friend that she might not make it out of here unscathed, heck neither will I.
“Sit here,” I show Millicent a rusty old chair once we’ve made it to the relative safety of the basement.
“There’s dust everywhere,” she scrunches up her nose as she tries to wipe the seat.
“Ja, but there are also six beds and a linen cupboard filled with old but clean, starched hospital sheets.” I look back Millie isn’t sitting she’s just staring at her dust covered hand.
“Millie!” I step toward her and grip her shoulders in both my hands as I shake my friend. “Please, rafiki, you have to pull yourself together. Those women and their unborn babies need you… I need you.”
My friend nods her head and wipes her sleeve across her nose and down her cheeks.
“I will get the beds ready,” she says between sobbing hiccups.
“Great,” I say and make my way toward the exit.
“Where are you going?”
“I need to get supplies and then figure out how we’ll get the woman down here. You just concentrate on getting the beds ready. Do you have your phone on you?”
She nods and reaches into her pocket pulling out a grey, square Nokia.
“Good put it on silent. We can stay in touch via sms, okay?”
“Okay.” She says and clips it to her belt.
I turn to run up the stairs with my heart pounding in my throat.
“Sarina,” she calls to me.
I freeze and turn.
“Be safe and God be with you, rafiki yangu.” My friend.
I raise my hand to my chest, over the area my heart is frantically beating, “Na pia wewe.” And also with you.
I turn and sprint up the stairs. I have taken off my shoes and am running in my stockings which hook on the broken patches of stone. I almost slip and fall, but manage to keep my balance.
I get to the top and listen there’s only the rumbling of pandemonium from outside, but just beneath it, dull as distant raindrops, I can hear them. The terrified grunts and whispered pleas of women in labour. Their fear and pain crush my heart.
I peer up and down the long, empty hallway then sprint toward the labour wards.
I turn my head in an attempt to avoid what lies beyond the open theatre doors. A burnt copper scent forces its way into my nose. My stomach lurches and I fight back the urge to vomit and scream. I manage to keep it together as I race past, eyes shut, hand reaching out in front of me, as though I’m reaching toward someone.
There are four rooms in the labour ward. They are divided by large sliding doors all of which stand wide open. I skid to a panting halt in the first one. A pale, freckled woman with short curly red hair and dressed in a green and white labour gown grabs my arm with one hand, while clenching at her belly with the other.
“Liewe Here meisie kind! Help ons net.” She pleads for help in Afrikaans.
“Shh. I will, but you must keep quiet. Can you stand and walk?” The woman nods.
“Waar is jou man Mevrou?” I ask where her husband is as I grab a medical kit from the cupboard and throw intravenous bags of glucose and saline, needles, arterial forceps, pain killers and other things I will need, into it.
In a very broken English she answers, “He is in the Cape for business. He called before all this happened and said he would catch the first flight out.” Tears and panic threaten to take control of her as a contraction ripples across her belly and down her legs.
I place the bag on the bed, there is no time to assess how far dilated she is so instead, I get her to sit up at the same time as I coach her, through a contraction, “Deep breath in, short panting one’s out.”
I glance down at my nurses watch to determine the length of time between each contraction at the same time as I get her to stand. Once I have her calmed her, I point to the corner of the room. “Can you walk?”
“Okay, grab that wheel chair and follow me.”
We make our way into the second room. Another woman, with a very young face. I suspect she is in her late teens, is kneeling on the floor.
“Sissi, singene kuleli kwesitulo,” I explain for her to get into the wheel chair as I grab her under her arm. My zulu is limited and I can only hope I used the correct phrase.
“I can speak English,” she pants while rubbing her belly.
“Great. Okay you two, I’m letting my colleague know you are on the way,” I begin to explain but instead of yeses I am met with two pairs of large, shocked eyes.
“Jy kan nie… you carn’t leave us alone, what if…”
I hold up my hand and in the best matron voice I can muster, “You have to. For the sake of your babies you must do what I say.”
In my heart I beg for the angel’s protection. If one of those protestors find me in here giving assistance they will kill us all.
I make sure the corridor is empty after I send Millicent an sms. The protesting masses are too busy out the front tearing the area apart and shouting out the scathing chants in the name of supposed fair pay.
I wave to Susan and Thembe to hurry. Susan is pushing the wheel chair with Thembe in it, holding the medical kit filled with supplies. I watch helpless as another contraction causes Susan to bite her lip till the blood runs.
The heavily pregnant red head waddles down the corridor, thankfully both are too occupied, by contractions and the need to reach their destination, to notice the horror in the theatre room as they pass by. Susan stops at the top of the stairs where Millicent is waiting for them.
Two down. Two to go.
The remaining women are both in the early stages of labour. I thank God for small mercies. They make it to the stairs where once again Millicent meets them. They slip into the darkness of the basement.
The exit door at the bottom of the hallway flies open. Matron walks in.
I look around frantically and the only place for me to hide is the bottom shelf of the linen cupboard in room four.
I squeeze into it and manage to slide the door closed and hide myself. I hear Matron and another woman laugh and make fun of their silly patients in pain.
Neither come into the labor ward, but instead make for the staff room. I pray they don’t decide to check in on their ‘silly patients’.
Moments later they exit. I have a direct line of sight from a small opening in the cupboard across the ward and passage to the staff room.
With arms full of bottled water, they discuss the subject of how the previous government is the cause of all their problems. How those who do not stand with them are as worthless as the dirt beneath their feet. Bile rises up my throat and anger burns the back of my eyes.
Were it only that common sense should prevail.
It’s hot in the cupboard and not easy to breath folded up like a frummpled old sheet. Once their voices seem far enough away, I slide open the door and slip off the shelf onto the floor.
I lie still holding back my need to gasp for air, and listen. I hear them exit. I open my mouth and suck in the stale hospital air at the same time as the open doors allow the loud chanting to rush down into the silent hospital. God, when will the police arrive and take control?
I stand and tiptoe through to the pre-eclampsia ward. All fifteen beds are full. An Indian woman by the name of Clarissa, six months pregnant with pre-eclampsia and a nurse herself, is wheeling her way from bed to bed checking up on her fellow patients.
“Clarissa!” I run up to her. I notice her color. And my fingers instinctively fold over her wrist to take her pulse. She is not well.
“Sarina! I thought, when we heard the gun fire…”
I shake my head. “No, Millicent and I are the only ones left,” I say
I shudder and force down the tears threatening mutiny, “Theater.” I look down at my feet. I do not want to cause a panic.
I kneel down beside the wheel chair and shake my head. Clarissa strokes a hand down my head, “Shshshsh it’s going to be okay.” Her maternal tone stirs a deep longing for the safety of my own mother’s arms. God save us.
I wipe my face and stand up. “Come we can’t waste time on those already gone. What is needed here?”
I look around at the myriad of frightened faces and swollen bellies carrying precious cargo.
“I have been doing half hourly observations. Bed nine needs a new IV. I’ve managed to get my hands on everyone’s meds out of the nurse’s station and hide it beneath their pillows. I have their files beneath mine.”
I smile then wrap my arms around the tiny caramel colored frame. “Clarissa, you are an angel sent from heaven,” I say, then push her to her bed before I help her into it and reconnect her IV line. After I take her blood pressure and give her medication, I do a quick round of the ward and refill all the women’s water jugs, and check their Iv’s, replacing those who need replacing from the meds cabinet at the end of the ward. I go through the patient files with her. I slip the last one back beneath her pillow as my phone vibrates in my pocket.
“Look I have to go. All of you should be fine. I’ll come back when I can. I doubt anyone will bother you. As long as they think no one but themselves can help, they won’t harass you, okay?”
I give her one last hug and run to the doors of the ward. Soft thank you’s and bless you both, are whispered as I dart past the women.
Heavy footsteps echo above the hushed thankyou’s. A large tubby nurse comes down the stair case to my left. This building is ancient and has at least three staircases leading to the top floor.
I duck behind the door. Hold my breath. My phone vibrates again. I shove my hand into my pant pocket and grip the Nokia.
“Yes, my little woman. Are you all behaving?” Comes the snarky nurses voice. She is standing in the doorway. The only thing separating her from me, is the door. I scrunch my eyes shut and pray like I’ve never prayed before. Please don’t see me, please don’t see me. Dear God if ever there was a time I need not be seen, it is now.
My bladder squirms and it takes all my strength to pinch and not soil myself as her rubber shoes squeak past the door. She waddles into the ward. Her breathing is labored and I can smell the sweat on her body from where I stand.
“Eish, soon this useless peoples will see, we have all the power. You will die without us.” She spits and I cringe as the globe of saliva hits the tiled floor.
She laughs then squeaks her way out of the ward and disappears down the hall.
The exit door opens and shuts. I exhale and turn to look at the women. All are as white as the sheets they’re lying on.
I leave them and dart toward the staircase down the far end. I have to pass the theatre again. I close my eyes. I don’t want to catch even a glimpse of the horror with in.
The next few seconds play like a slow-motion movie. You know the one, where the babes in red bikinis run up the beach in their red swimmers? Except this isn’t a movie and there are no hotties in bikinis.
My foot catches on a broken piece of linoleum. I careen forward, face planting right in front of the open door. Instinct turns my head to the left so I don’t bash my nose into the floor. My eyes take in the picture of horror I was trying so hard to avoid.
My breath is knocked from my chest. I lay there gasping like a fish out of water.
Three lifeless bodies, red roses blooming on the front of their green scrubs. An arm, limp as a wilted poppy, hangs off the table above. Air rushes into my lungs as my diaphragm kicks back into action and forces out a scream.
The movie scene speeds up. I have made myself known. I jump to my feet and run to the dark pocket beneath the staircase where Millicent and I hid earlier.
Every one of my nerve ending crackles with shock and disbelief. My skin is slick with sweat and tears wash down my face. My brain tries desperately to salvage what logical thinking is left. But emotion and terror envelop me like an icy blanket.
Dear God, how is it possible? The very people who promise to hold life dear and sacred, who take an oath to protect, heal, and care for the sick, helpless, and dying. Yet they are the ones taking it?
I suck back my tears and bite my tongue to curb the sniffles. Millicent needs me. I sit a moment longer to make sure no one has heard me scream. For once I am grateful for the ruckus outside.
I crawl to the top steps and slowly, on my bum, not trusting my legs, I slip down the steps, one-by-one till I reach the basement.
I look up from the last step. My legs are still shaking. The scene is weirdly serene.
Two of our patients are strolling around the far corner of the dimly lit basement. One softly humming the Lord’s Prayer while rubbing her back. The other standing beside Sarah, supporting the mother to be and smiling.
Millicent is elbow deep in a delivery. The young Zulu girl, Thembe. Sweat drips off Thembe’s brow. But she is strong and doesn’t make a sound as birth pains wrack her tiny frame. I note Millicent managed to insert an IV.
“Where have you been?” she says not taking her eyes off the crowning head. Another burst of adrenaline floods my body and I rush to her side.
“I’m okay it’s the other one who needs you.” She motions with her head to the bed behind us where the red head, Sarah, is standing leaning on the bed, rocking back and forth as she breathes her way through another contraction. The other pregnant woman who was guiding her steps away and smile her thanks.
“How far are the contractions?” I ask her.
“Far enough not to worry you Sister,” she says in in soft accent which leads me to assume she might be from the Cape. I nod and turn my attention to Sarah.
“Okay, Sarah I need you to sit on the bed we have to check that everything is okay and how far dilated you are.”
I help her onto the bed and lay her back into a semi-fowlers position.
I squeeze the potent pink substance known as hibiscrub from a bottle and disinfect my hands. Then I grab and tear open a packet of sterile gloves. Millicent has laid out all the instruments and items I collected, on an old trolley.
Gloves on, I squeeze some KY jelly onto my fingertips. I slide my index and middle finger into the woman’s vagina and spread them. She is fully dilated and the tip of my middle finger strokes the top of the crowning head. I look to the side. Millicent is a star. Sarah already has an IV inserted. We’re good to go.
“Okay Sarah, it’s time. With the next contraction I need you to push.”
We deliver three babies and are in the midst of a fourth delivery when, two, armed soldiers rush down the stairs.
Sarah lets out a shrill scream and I freeze on the spot.
“Thula Sissi,” the man raises a hand and lowers his weapon.
“We are here to help. The danger is over,” he says motioning to his partner to follow his lead then says something over his walkie-talkie.
We lost five babies and two mothers – one of which was sweet Clarissa. Another six nurses and three doctors succumbed to the violence that day.
Barley a word of it made international news and much of it was down played by the local media. Many arrests were made and more let go to carry on spreading the hate.
Millicent and I returned the following day to help clean up the mess. It was hard to work alongside the people who had been a part of the anarchy the day before. It was even worse to entrust those fragile lives we’d saved, back to them.
When will humanity learn that violence is not the way? When will my country heal, and unite to build a better, stronger place for all? Fear is an ugly creature. It breads distrust and hate. Ignorant anger spills over to unfounded hatred and unfounded hatred will destroy us all.
This story is dedicated to the nurses, and patients who lost their lives that day, and also to my friends who endeavored to apply their oaths to the fullest no matter the threat to their own lives.