(For several years I was an expatriate medical officer on a big company diamond mine in Botswana. All names have been changed.)

Ring ring … ring ring … RING RING!!

The telephone ring cut through the night like a scalpel, tearing apart the layers of my hard-earned sleep. I had been in bed for four hours, and asleep for only two of them. The Botswana summer heat and humidity was oppressive, and sleep was hard to come by in the best of circumstances. My bedside clock read 2.30 am. As I slowly focused at it, the display changed to 2.31 am, with what seemed to me an unbearable weariness.

Hello?

“Hello?”

Hello, Sister!

Michelle, my wife, automatically turned over in bed, facing away from me, and put a pillow over her head. She knew what was coming.

“May I speak to Doctor Young?”

Yes, Sister, what can I do for you?

“Is that Doctor Young?”

Yes, it is.

“Doctor, this is Sister Maphane.”

I knew her well. She was quite a good nursing sister, but lacked confidence.

Yes, Sister?

“From the hospital.”

I know where you are from.

“From the Male Ward.”

Sigh!

What is wrong, Sister?

“Hello, doctor, how are you?”

I thought for a moment of telling her how I really was. But I had already spent one afternoon at the local police station after expressing my inner feelings, and I decided against it.

What is wrong, Sister?

“Do you remember Mr Sono, doctor?”

I did. He had advanced lung disease due to tuberculosis and years of smoking. He had been dying for the past week, and was beyond treatment other than measures to make him comfortable.

Yes, Sister …

“Doctor, he is gasping!”

I knew what this meant, and felt a surge of relief. It meant that I would not have to get up and make the trip to the hospital, and that I might squeeze some more sleep out of the night. I could sort this out over the phone. The rest of our conversation was entirely predictable.

Sister, is he still gasping, or has it been some time since he last gasped?

“It has been some time since he … ah … last gasped.”

So he is no longer gasping?

“No, doctor.”

Is he breathing at all, Sister?

“No, doctor.”

So, is he late, Sister?

I could sense the relief in her voice as she answered.

“Yes, doctor, he is late.”

The Batswana have a cultural taboo about saying anybody is “dead”. The closest they come is “ So-and-so is ‘late’, ” as in your “late” grandfather.

Thank you, Sister, for letting me know.

“Thank you doctor. Are you coming?”

There is no need, Sister … we’ll sort the paperwork out tomorrow.

“Good night, doctor.”

Frustrated thoughts about cultural differences occupied my mind, and it took a good 45 minutes to get back to sleep. The second call came unexpectedly, deep into the night.

“Hello, Dr Young?”

Yes?

“Charles Taylor here. You saw me earlier today for insomnia.”

Yes, Mr Taylor?

“Those sleeping tablets you gave me work very well, but I’ve woken up again.”

A deep breath to control my rising frustration.

Yes, Sir?

“Can I take another one?”

I searched for an appropriate answer, somewhere between sarcasm and anger, and found nothing.

Go ahead.

“Thanks, doctor.”

No cultural division here. Further sleep proved elusive. For another hour I tossed and turned, cursing the hour, the heat, unthinking patients, and the day that was to follow. Finally I could take it no more. I waited another fifteen minutes to be sure, reached for my cellphone, retrieved the last incoming call, and dialled the number.

A groggy voice answered.

Mr Taylor?

“Yes … ?”

Martin Young here.

“Yes … ?” (An even more hesitant and uncertain reply … )

I could just imagine what he was thinking. I waited until the timing was perfect, and then let him have it!

I just phoned to find out if the second tablet is working …

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Martin Young

Martin Young

Martin Young is an ENT surgeon living an idyllic life in Knysna. He is a firm believer that "the unexamined life is not worth living", writes for a hobby and is happy to speak truth to power www.drmartinyoung.com...

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