Good morning to you all and thank you for the honour and opportunity to address you today at our Schools birthday celebration.
What I prepared was something I would have appreciated to have heard whilst I was still at school and I hope you can take something from it too.
As you heard I am a Doctor and work in a very busy State Hospital in Khayelitsha not far from here. I work in the Medicine department and so diagnose and manage patients with a very broad spectrum of disease. But what I spend most of my time doing is caring for those affected by HIV / Aids and Tuberculosis and often dealing with the stigma related to these diagnoses.
It’s a challenging job, especially working with the massive burden of disease in the community and the little resources we have available. Often one would get to the end of a 30 hour shift and feel completely numbed to the suffering of others due to the sheer volume of patients and the emotional and physical trauma they have experienced.
It’s no wonder that we as Health care workers when we discuss or hand over patients to each other we label people by their diagnoses and not by their name. Because remembering a name amongst a flood of people is often very difficult.
For example: a person will become the fractured ankle in casualty or the stroke patient in room 5 instead of their real names.
It is this labeling of people by their condition that has resonated with me and I think I can draw parallels to our lives here today. I’m not talking about real medical conditions that you or I might suffer from like Diabetes or Depression, but conditions that we suffer from as a result of labels or diagnoses being pinned on us by others, or alternatively beliefs we have about ourselves and our abilities.
I was diagnosed with being bad at Maths. I first became aware of my diagnosis in Grade 3 when after a particularly confusing lesson about division and multiplication of fractions, the teacher lost her temper with me for not understanding.
That stuck with me. And since then I have lived with the belief that I struggle with maths. Whenever I found myself tackling a complex sum, my mind would freeze up and I would become very aware of my apparent inability to get to the correct answer.
But what I find interesting is that Yes, maths didn’t come easily to me and I have had to work hard to try and remain positive.
But is that teacher solely to blame for my maths problem? She could have been a bit more tactful in the way she handled the situation, but who accepted this diagnosis? Who allowed this label to shape how I viewed myself? The answer is, I did.
What diagnoses do you have? What have you been labeled with? Is it related to your intellectual ability, your ability to make friends and socialize, your popularity amongst your peers, maybe it’s related to how you view your body or how others seemingly view yours?
The next question I have is a more uncomfortable one – who have we given labels to? What diagnoses have we given to others? That is a rather uncomfortable silence. Because we all give and receive labels.
Now that I have got you thinking about what your diagnoses entail, I want to pose the question: How do you change your diagnosis? Is there any hope to be healed?
If I use my maths difficulties as an example, I have not been cured. It is a chronic diagnosis that I will carry with me. I didn’t do outrageously well in math at school and I still need to think twice about why a half times a half makes a quarter!
Maybe when my little James gets to grade 3 I will give fractions another crack!
I hope to leave you with some ideas I have about how we tackle this problem.
Firstly: I have noticed that in my dealings with patients with chronic diseases like HIV , Cancer, Diabetes and Depression , the people that do well and often respond better to treatment are the patients who acknowledge their diagnosis and who are willing to wrestle with the daily challenges that their condition brings. They choose to story their lives around their condition and not allow their condition to write their story.
In the same way, the labels that we carry with us require our acknowledgment and need to be faced in order to start the healing process.
Secondly, we can’t do it alone. What our labels often do is isolate us from others. Either we are marginalized by others or alternatively we push those closest to us away.
Just like a person with cancer needs a multi-disciplinary team of Doctors, nurses, dieticians, oncologists, family and friends to support the healing process, so do we need a team of people who support us and are there for us.
Lastly, let us remember that labels can be positive or negative. Think back to some of the affirmations that you have received. From whom did it come and how did it make you feel about yourself?
There was a teacher here at this school many years ago that doubled as my science teacher and cricket and hockey coach on the sports field. He identified potential in me that I never knew I had. He came alongside me, encouraged me, guided me and backed me to become a better person.
The compliments and mentorship that we give to one another, however big or small, are one of the most meaningful gestures we have in life.
I want to leave us with this challenge. Never underestimate our ability to mould the lives of others. Who is going to write your life story, is it your label or it is you?