Sometimes death is not just inevitable, but imminent. For a pragmatic like Dr Michelle Meiring the challenge lies in creating a soft landing, to cushion life’s twilight hour in love and care.
Her focus is children; her mandate starts when other doctors say: ‘there’s nothing more to be done’.
It all started at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto in 1999; the year that saw Thabo Mbeki’s presidential inauguration and the onslaught of Aids-denialism. ‘I was training at Baragwanath Hospital,’ says Michelle. ‘I think a lot of us went into paediatrics thinking kids are resilient, they don’t die, they bounce back – it’s a fun field. And then to be swamped with all of that dying, it was just not what a lot of us expected.’
She recalls how up to fifty sick babies arrived at Baragwanath per night. ‘It was the days before we had antiretroviral treatment,’ she says. ‘We were fighting for Nevirapine, there were a lot of doctors picketing, I mean Mark Heywood (former Section27 executive director) was involved and all the rest of it. So we had a lot of paediatric deaths, sometimes up to three deaths on one shift. It was very traumatic to witness so much death and dying and having to fight our own government for proper treatment.
‘I was a bit of a nerd and didn’t like to have death stats on my slate. So I used to try and keep the babies alive until the next shift, handing over to my colleagues, so they got the bad statistics.’ Michelle smiles and shrugs her shoulders. ‘You know, silly little things you do in those situations,’ she says.
During the interview, Michelle laughs a lot. Her face breaks into an easy grin, even while recalling perilous days on the job. This may well be her nature; perhaps it’s also partly a learned response, a means to soften the sadness at the centre of her work.
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