Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006



I’m not a fan of hospitals. I’m not particularly keen on doctors. I know many personally, and think they are great people, but once they don their white coats and come over all official on me, I get scared. Fortunately, I have had great health in my life and have not needed doctors or hospitals much. Like Emily, I have had to go to hospitals to visit others. Mostly, these have been very sad or traumatic experiences – visiting my grandfather on his deathbed, visiting my very ill grandmother or watching my brother in ICU and wondering if he would make it out (he did). But apart from having tonsils out at the age of three and giving birth to a baby at the age of 31, I’ve had no need of hospitals.

As a journalist, I had to go to hospitals now and again. Working the seedier side of the crime shift meant trying to get an interview with the victim/survivor, preferably at their hospital bedside. My most memorable hospital visit took place when I was a cadet reporter on The Star, one of Johannesburg’s largest daily papers. I had a two-month trial period in which to impress upon the news editor that I was the most worthy of all his candidates and that he should give me a full-time job. I gratefully and enthusiastically took every job he handed me, and had some success: some front page stories, a few by-lines, an op-ed piece. I was quietly confident that all was going well.

One morning when he told me I was off to the Johannesburg City Hospital with a photographer to capture pics of Father Christmas visiting the children’s ward, I was pleased. Just a few photo captions here and there, a few smiling children, a genial Father Christmas; compared to many of my assignments thus far this would be a piece of cake. The photographer I was going with was seasoned – Joao Silva, who later made his name as one of the Bang-Bang Club, a group of four South African photographers who captured the violence (hence the “Bang-Bang”) in South Africa’s townships in the early Nineties and transmitted their images to the world, helping to sway international opinion against the apartheid government. He’d photographed war, famine in the Sudan, unspeakable things in towns just near where I lived. So, in comparison, Father Christmas at the hospital with the children was for him an easy and pleasant way to spend a morning.

We arrived at the children’s ward. There were little people with their limbs in casts, others attached to drips but smiling broadly from under their completely bald heads, others who didn’t appear to see us. The ward was brightly decorated for Christmas, tinsel everywhere, and outside the hot, December sunshine griddled the pavements. As I looked around at the faces, some animate, others not, I could feel my heart come into my throat. Inside, I was delivering myself a stern lecture: “Pull yourself together, you’re a journalist, a professional, here to take down names and write some captions, this is an easy job, just wait for Father Christmas and then it will all be over.”

Father Christmas arrived, incongruously dressed in his winter red and white suit, and started making his rounds of the beds, delivering presents and hugs. Little arms stretched up around his neck, ruffled his overtly fake beard. Joao started snapping. Those who could unwrapped their single present delightedly, the nurses helped the ones who couldn’t. To my horror, I felt tears in my eyes. Frantically dabbing at the tears now streaming down my cheeks, I was trying to write notes and take names. My tears turned to sobs. Joao patted me, then got on with his job, professional that he was, while I gave up all attempts at journalism and gave in to weeping. Eventually a sister took pity on me, led me away, still sobbing, sat me down, gave me tissues and fed me sweetened tea. When Joao had finished, he collected me, still a damp wreck, and took me back to the office, where I used his notes to write my captions.

A couple of weeks later, the news editor told me I would not be getting a position on the newspaper. While everything I had produced had been of good quality, he suspected that I did not have what it took to be a journalist on a newspaper. I was disappointed and angry, and within weeks, found a job on another paper. There I covered the crime beat, saw some horrific things, was often scared out of my wits by the dangerous situations I found myself in. Six months into that job, after suffering repeated nightmares, I quit newspapers and gave up my dream. It was never going to be for me. I didn’t have the professional distance that it took to be a journalist in South Africa at that hard, challenging moment in the country’s history. My morning in the children’s ward should have made that clear.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

10 thoughts on “Hospitals

  1. Journalism wouldn’t be for me either.

    I have to take Kiko to the local children’s hospital quite regularly. It is modern sunny building full of colourful decor, toys and paintings. Clowns go around entertaining the children and there are special hospital dogs which are taken around the wards. Kiko loves it there because each waiting room is an Aladdin’s Cave of toys and he gets to show off to the super-kind medical staff.

    I hate it. I find it an incredibly depressing place. No amount of colourful paint or cheery decor could ever change that.

  2. That would have been a very, very intense time in South Africas history. I still remember, in the 80s the day the Star was published as blank paper- or rather with headlines with the article part blank as a protest against censorship. It would have taken a lot of courage to make that editorial decision.

    I can’t really even imagine how hard it would be to be a journalist in that environment. It was difficult to have much of a picture of what was going on in the country- at least for me at 17 in the Northern suburbs because there was such a clamp down on information- but I remember one night crying & crying just reading the lists of people detained and their ages and occupations in the Star- all the teachers and nurses and journalists and other people I could tell were just ordinary though brave people with families who were probably very scared.

    And you covered the crime beat in Johannesburg…ai yi yi!

  3. You, Charlotte, are a writer, not a journalist. I don’t have problems with journalists, but their focus is supposed to be on conveying facts.

    You are a creative, passionate writer. A writer who feels. You cannot make someone feel anything if you cannot feel yourself. Thank goodness you are NOT wasting your ability to communicate deep emotion on newspaper articles (although I know you might have to occassionally throw some of your talent at corporate gobbledegook to earn a Euro or two).

    My point? Feeling is good. I am so glad you do.

    (apologies to journalists – I really mean no harm.)

  4. There you go. Compassion and feeling are not assets for journalists.

    I remember one vacation Jim and I made. While we were gone, one of my cats died. We were traveling on amtrak, and we happened to be scheduled to get on a train that was delayed. Eventually, news reports on the tvs in the waiting area made it clear why the train was delayed. The one we were connecting to had derailed in Wyoming. We decided to call our relatives that would be waiting for us to arrive at the other end, to tell them that we had been delayed but that we were NOT on that train. During that phone call, I learned that my cat had died while we were gone. I returned to Jim, very upset, crying. He was sitting with me, his arm around me, comforting me, when a total stranger approached us. “I can see you are very upset,” was her opening gambit. “Do you mind if I talk to you for a moment?” I told her no, I didn’t mind. So, her next ghoulish question was, “Did you have someone on that train that derailed?” “No,” I responded. “I just learned that my cat died while I was on vacation.” “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” It took her about 15 seconds to excuse herself and wander off, watching for the telltale signs of grief so that she could get a nice little soundbite for her news program.

    I feel certain that you, Charlotte, would have spent a little longer commiserating with me.

  5. The children’s ward is ALWAYS one to avoid when at the hospital. And I agree with John. You’re a writer, not a journalist, and I’m so annoyed by all the journalists out there who can’t tell the difference between the two, desperately trying to be writers when they should stick to journalism and leave the writing to the creative, passionate souls like you (you’ll note I made reference to this in my post today, not having read yours yet. I love it when that sort of overlap happens in the blogosphere).

  6. Helen, you’re right, no amount of bright paint can take away the fact that the children’s ward is grim and sad. Ms Make Tea, the experience was rough, but it grew me up. At the time, I knew SA was poised to become a better place, but it just seemed like it was taking so long. MHHands, I am sorry to say but I probably was such a journalist in my time: rushing to get the story to meet the deadline, but I hope that I might have found a compassionate word for you. John and Emily, thanks for those kind thoughts. I have managed to release my journo dreams but hope that one day I am paid not only to write gobbledegook …

  7. Oh, this post breaks my heart. I work in a hosptial, and I have to admit, passing the children in the chemotherapy wing is the WORST, i start crying every time. A lot of the doctors around here are really hardened to the pain and suffering their patients go through – they have to be, I’m sure, but it stills strikes me at my core, every day. I think it’s what keeps me motivated at work, though, and willing to put up with the insanity.

    You are a beautiful writer, Charlotte, and doing I’m sure you are doing just what you are supposed to be!

  8. It must have been the toughest possible envirionment to try to become a journalist in – time, place and emotional space in history. My husband’s family were here during that period and living through it, but I was a soft English lass, trying my new wings around stimulating but reassuring Italy and France. I would have crumbled to pieces with half of what you experienced.

  9. A friend of mine was a newpaper photographer and the worst thing that ever happened to him was the night he was sent to photograph a fatal road accident. When he got there, the body was that of his own best friend. How on earth do you remain professional in a situation like that?

  10. I’m grateful for the people who can do such gut-wrenching jobs as emergency healthcare, war-front journalism, social work, etc. I’ve always felt compelled to better the world in some way but like you, am ruled by hyper-empathy. When another person is in pain, I feel pain; when they cry, I cry; when they rage, I rage. It’s just a matter of everyone having different abilities/gifts/strengths and figuring out how we can best use them to serve the world. 🙂

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