A Learning Curve

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Students Glynis Reynolds L and Diana Hirsch R hard at work in the Biochemistry Laboratory, Harare Hospital, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1966

A Learning Curve

After a while at the Public health Laboratories on North Avenue in Salisbury, (described in my last blog) I got a chance to get a transfer to Harare Hospital in the industrial part of town servicing the African township.  It boasted the second largest outpatient intake in Southern Africa, after Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto township in Johannesburg serving a thousand outpatients a day.  I was sure to learn something there.

A Learning Curve

I arrived on the hospital transport from the Salisbury General Hospital bright and early in the morning eager for work.  The hospital was huge.  I could see the snake of African patients lined up outside the hospital even at that early hour.

The laboratory occupied one full wing of the hospital.  The Bacteriology lab was at the end of the long corridor of labs.  I made my way there.  A tall, excruciatingly thin man clad in a white coat stooped before a sea of petri dishes stacked six high with patient forms sandwiched between them for the whole sixteen foot length and 4 foot depth of the lab bench. On the side bench were stacked batteries of sugars for differentiation of Schigellas and Salmonellas (dysenteries and  typhoids).  He turned as I entered.  In a country obsessed with colour he was the whitest man I’d ever seen: in his mid twenties his hair ashen. The nose sharp, Roman.  His eyes were liquid blue, the rim of the eyelids almost pink, the skin almost transparent.  Every vein stood out clearly on his hands.  Instinctively it occurred to me that those veins would be easy to ‘stick’ if they didn’t roll.  I didn’t think they would.  He was taut.  A cigarette was gripped between the pencil thin line of his lips.  I stood transfixed.  “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, as he released the cigarette and  balanced it on the edge of the bench and exhaled.  Through the cloud of smoke I groped for the the atlas in my bag.  “We won’t have time for that,” he said as I produced it.  “This is a test to see if you are ready to take over tomorrow.”

I saw everything in the book in one day from the golden halo’s of haemolitic streptococci on blood agar to  viewing Myco leprae on skin scrapings and Myco tuburculosis in sputum under the microscope.  My education in more ways than one had begun.

The hospital transport was too rigid in its schedule. The only one left the hospital for town at four o’clock on the dot with the X-Ray techs.  I applied to Harare Hospital Nurses Home for residence, an unheard of request for a medical technology student.   Soon after I left my friends at Sacks House, a boarding house in town.  It was a long time before I saw the shops again.  But there was a swimming pool at the nurses home which was shared by the housemen (medical interns and residents) from their residence.   That was the place to freshen up and where the well earned fun was found.

6 Comments

  • Penny

    Reply Reply July 16, 2011

    Another enjoyable and evocative post, Diana. Quite amazing that the guy smoked in the Bac Lab! But I believe it! Alan Seymour, sensibly, did not allow smoking or eating in his lab and I seem to have suffered no ill-effects from frequent hand washing with PhisoHex, which I think was later withdrawn as a carcinogen. Mind you, the number of things that are now treated as ultra-toxic that I came into contact with – asbestos, benzene, iso-octane, tobacco smoke to name but a few – there is little hope for me!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 16, 2011

      Penny,
      Yes, smoking, eating and drinking in the lab was strictly forbidden, for obvious reasons, hence the tea room. The hospital supplied us with lovely hot tea on that hospital crockery and sandwiches or biscuits at 10 and 2 and it was quite a sociable 15 minutes break. I went through a bit of a washing obsession for a while, and do remember PhisoHex. It was hospital green wasn’t it? Yes about those carcinogens…Dad used to give us the broken thermometers to shake out the mercury and we used to play with it! We seem to be doing alright. There is so much hysteria about simply everything these days. All the fun has gone out of life for kids (as well as adults!)

      • Penny

        Reply Reply July 17, 2011

        My goodness! Broken glass AND mercury together! There might have been germs involved too … It is a wonder that you are still here today! I agree that children in the developed world are missing out on many important stages in their development – it would be unthinkable for them to disappear off who-knows-where (in my case somewhere in the bush, the swimming pool or the sports field) in the morning, roll in for lunch and off again till supper all the time with no adult to caution them. Self-reliance being the most obvious casualty of this culture, I think.

        • Diana

          Reply Reply July 18, 2011

          Penny, yes everything is an organized activity these days. The spontaneity has gone out of life. Children are very well informed through the internet and wonderful television programs and so on but havent really experienced these things first hand.

  • betty

    Reply Reply July 18, 2011

    Diana, I love your detailed and wonderful description of the gentleman in the lab! We too, used Phiso -hex at home….Mom brought it from the hospital, along with ether to put in my insect killing jar! She also supplied me with tubing, bottles to hang for transfusions, glass syringes sans needles, and all sorts of things that we played “nurse and doctor” with. I had the finest “play hospital” in South Houston and every one wanted to be my patient. Who knows what evil lurked in those used supplies that Mom brought home before they could be discarded at the hospital! Anyway, being thrown into the middle of things probably made you learn faster than being coddled, and look what a great lab tech you were. I have told so many people about your phosphoresent plant experiments at Rice University and they think that was so very cool! You are so talented and amazing, scientist and author too!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 18, 2011

      Betty, I can just see you with it all! My younger brother and I used to play “doctor and nurse” too. We had a wonderful Wendy House at the bottom of our garden with all the Rosebud dolls you could imagine in cots. We used sharp aloe thorns for giving injections. Those were the days when everything was glass and all the syringes and needles were sterilized and reused at dads surgery. It seems so archaic now.
      Yes, the transgenic plant harboring luciferase, the florescent gene from the firefly, hooked to a touch gene in a mustard weed has to be the major achievement of my professional life. Marvel that it actually worked after all the manipulations. Reporter genes have become routine tools of the science in the twenty years since I first worked with it. How quickly the science has moved forward. The world gets better every day.

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