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.