Sunday, 9 November 2014

Thank You to the Unknown Doctors

Forty years ago my life was saved by an unknown Doctor in a village in East Africa. I would like to say Thank You.

On Saturday mornings there is a BBC Radio 4 programme called "Saturday Live". One of their segments is a piece called "Thank you" where listeners have the opportunity to say thank you to someone who did a good deed for them and they never had a chance to thank. Every Saturday, when I listen  to this, I feel I should say thank you to the young Doctor who saved my life after a car accident out in the bush.

Forty years ago my father and I went on safari. At the time we lived in Kampala, Uganda. We set out in my dad's Volkwagen Type 3 with the aim of driving from Uganda, through Kenya and ending up in Tanzania. Just the two of us, driving for thousands of miles. Father and son ROAD TRIIIIPPPPP !

We had some fascinating experiences on that trip. We were almost crushed by a bull elephant in the night as rain crashed down around us. We sat with pygmies and chatted about life. We met our first ever real life Black America who sat as bold as brass on the veranda of an ostensibly whites-only Nairobi hotel and invited us to join him for a drink.

But one day as we drove along a bumpy, dusty road towards the the Kenya/Tanzania border tragedy (nearly) happened. In the blink of an eye, we hit a bump at high speed and the car flipped over. Amongst the dust and the wreckage I remember hearing my Dad's voice saying "are you okay, boy?". I pushed him and we struggled out of the car.

Amazingly, he was fine. Not a scratch. I. on the other hand had blood streaming down the left side of my head. I had not been wearing a seatbelt and my head had smashed the side window. My whole left side was covered in blood and I fell to the ground as my Dad looked on in horror.

We were miles and miles out in the savannah. Not a car, person, building in site. No mobile phones in those days. Nothing but a wrecked car in its roof, a terrified father and a young boy in a very bad way.

Two things happened.

Firstly a Maasi man with a stick and a spear appeared in the distance. My Dad called him and he walked towards us. This was risky. Was he friend or foe? But there was really no option. The man came. We didn't speak his language and he didn't speak English. My dad cried, shouted, gesticulated towards me and the car. The man looked silently for a while, then without saying anything he turned and walked away leaving us alone. He didn't help us. But nor did he kill and rob us.

Some time later a coach came down the road. My Dad jumped into the road, waving like a mad man. The coach stopped. It was filled with local folk, baggage, chickens, even some goats!

In what he freely admits was one of the oddest decisions he ever made, my father simply lifted me up, walked over to the coach, placed me on the floor of the coach, stepped off and begged the driver "Please take him, please take him".

He told me much later that as the coach drove away, leaving him standing alone in the bush with the smashed car as evening drew in, with his bleeding, dying son being driven away in the company of strangers to God knows where he thought "what on earth did I just do?"

But those strangers took me to a village. In that village there was a Kenyan medical student who had been sent to serve in the village for a few months as part of his training. He was the only medically trained person for hundreds of miles on any direction.

I have flashes of memory of this episode. There was no anaesthetic. No pain killers. I remember five or six strong men holding me as I screamed. I remember the first stitch going into the side of my head. Then nothing else.

Much, much later I heard my father's side of the story. After he hitched a ride along the road, he had started dashing from village to village searching for me. Asking questions. "Was a boy brought here?"

Eventually he arrived at the village. They took him to a hut. It was literally a hut. It was late evening The whole family was sitting outside the front of the hut. Inside, they had made up a bed for me and left their home for me to lie in, waiting until someone came for me. That is where he found me.

We rested there for a time. I don't know whether it was a day or two days. But finally we left and as we left, that young Doctor came to see me. He showed me the large, curved, wooden needle that he had used to sew up my head. He said he put in eight stitches and forty years later I still have a long, ugly scar along the left side of my head.

That Doctor was a young man. Early twenties I think. I hope he had a wonderful career as a Doctor in Kenya. I never knew his name but I want to say "THANK YOU" to the unknown Doctor for being there in that village when he might have avoided such duties and stayed in the City. For saving my life without a thought when a group of strangers dumped a bleeding boy on his doorstep. And, when my father thanked him tearfully and tried to give him some money as a gift for what he had done, for laughing and saying "ah ha, Sir, I am a Doctor. This is what I do".

With Ebola striking countries in West Africa and young Doctors volunteering to risk their lives to save lives, I want to say THANK YOU to all of you on behalf of the people who you have saved and tried to save who may never know your name.

To The Unknown Doctors. Thank You. It's what you do.