There is this really cool story in the Bible in the Old Testament. The mighty prophet Elijah had a full-on melt-down and  threw himself on the desert floor under a tree and dramatically wailed out in anguish that he wanted to die. One would think he was above these shenanigans as he just recently defeated the 450 prophets of Baal and had them killed. But yet, there he was, curled up in the fetal position wanting to give up on life. So, what did God do? He sent a mighty angel. And what did the strapping angelic messenger do? He spoke a beautifully simple (perhaps seemingly obvious, but also liberating) truth: “This journey is too hard for you” and then proceeded to bake Elijah bread, to feed him and to tell him to take a nap. When Elijah woke up, the angel fed him again. End of story. Is it not quite incredible, that despite the fact that the angel could have done a whole host of things (and we kind of expect him to give him a rousing pep talk or a stern talking-to) he does simple, basic, humble things for Elijah to care for his body and his soul. The act of caring is simple; the impact is transcendent.



This week, one of our end of life patients had an awful, terrifying breathing episode. This happens with patients suffering from COPD when they simply cannot catch their breath. (They can inhale, but not exhale, and when you panic, which is only too natural when you can’t breathe, it makes it much worse). To watch one of these episodes is horrendous. To live through it must be indescribably petrifying. I knew it was bad when our staff ran to help when the guest pressed their buzzer, but then the buzzer rang twice more, indicating that the carer needed further help When the third carer ran, I ran (I am using the term “run” extremely loosely here as I am on crutches, so I hobbled my way over there). Jane (the guest) was blue in the face and battling. She was clenching the arms of her chair, her eyes were closed tightly and every muscle in her body was contracting. All necessary medicines were administered, and the carers were there more for support than anything else at that stage.  I put my hands on Jane’s knees, trying to assure her I was there too, and started talking to her in a reassuring way, as we’ve been trained to do. . All the carers looked at me at once, indicating with huge judgmental eyes that Jane wants absolute silence. Obakeng also took my hands off Jane’s knees. She does not want to be touched. They know Jane, and they know how to deal with these incidents much better than me. After twenty frighting minutes, Jane caught her breath and had a nap. The carers went back to work as if nothing had happened. But I did not. The episode made an impression on me that I am not likely to forget. The carers know what to do, because they know Jane. The courses we’ve attended and the experience with other guests helped, but what really made the difference was their instinct and their relationship with her. They deal with it a few times a day. I am the chop in my office who only sees the episodes once in a while. They know exactly how SHE wants these episodes to be handled, even though it is not what the textbooks teach.


I was overwhelmed with gratitude that we have these people as carers. They have an understanding of how to comfort and care for people that is far more nuanced and complex than most learned, rushed professionals. They might not understand it on an academic or an intellectual level as I do not think comforting can be placed neatly in a box and labelled. I’ve seen it time and time again that when guests are with us, they prefer the carers to be with them in their deepest hour of need, rather than family or friends. How do we explain this?


I hate that the difficult reality in which most people in this country live makes their hearts soft and their souls kind. People who grow up in townships and rural areas in Southern Africa with governments that simply do not care develop a certain skill set. They understand on a level others do not, that relationships are what will save you, and that we desperately need each other. We have no safety net here. We only have each other.


Imagine getting up at 4am to make sure your kids have food, and ironed clothes and trying to fit that in with the ongoing loadshedding. Imagine the burden of paying black tax to all and sundry because you are the one in the family with a job. Imagine getting in a queue waiting for a taxi which is so unsafe that you are not sure if you will get home. Imagine walking to get water in a bucket after a grueling shift because your municipality does not supply it. These challenges must make you either cold and callous or, they cultivate a unique and sacred kind of compassion.


I watch dear George when he speaks to guests, and marvel at how he is able to coax even the most stubborn person out of bed to go for a spin on the wheelchair outside. He somehow gets that life is not just logical and that you can’t just make a reasonable argument to someone to get them to do what is good for them. He will first sit and talk and he will keep circling back and somehow, eventuallythe patient is out of the bed and in a wheelchair, spinning around the lodge and perhaps even willing to go to the park. Maybe waiting for a guest to slowly make a decision to get out of bed is not unlike waiting at MTN taxi rank?


I am amazed at carers’ capacity to show compassion for others when their own lives are so hard. They know things without even knowing they know them. Institutions reduce our humanness to just our physical beings. This we are, but our essence is so much more complex, layered and nuanced. We are obviously physical beings and our guests need help practically because their bodies are frail or ill or compromised. I also get that we are biochemical and often (more often than not as we get older) this biochemistry can be fixed with a pill or a potion. But as much as we are physical and biochemical, we are emotional and relational beings, and we might need a hug just as much as a catheter. We might need a non-judgmental friendly chat as much as we need a pill. One is not more important than the other. Perhaps because we don’t have to go and get a degree to offer comfort and show kindness, we think it is less important.


I’ve seen friends visit our guests, and despite their good intentions they say the wrong things. No list of positive thoughts or arguments for the case of “mind over matter” helps – EVER, but the simple, unassuming presence of total acceptance helps healing.  Suzie who works for us, has lost her hearing and in the Boksburg gas explosion lost a close family member. She supports an extended family both here and in Malawi. If anyone has reason to be disgruntled it is her. Yet, I have seen it time and again, that end-of-life patients see something in her that I cannot offer. She has a gentleness, patience and understanding that does not need words. Speaking of words, our dear millennial Kundai has lots of words, and I love hearing him announce himself in witty casual slang every time he serves food – and he always tells our female guests how beautiful they look. He finds a new compliment for each occasion. It is fabulous.


I realise that it may sound as if I’m making a case for suffering.  I am not saying that suffering always has a purpose and by that insinuation justifying our government’s revolting greed, poverty, human rights abuses etc., but what I do see is that despite the suffering on our continent, our people rise up. They use what the hardships teach them and are finding purpose and changing lives. I see their beautiful hearts and the comfort they offer. Just like Elijah’s angel who brought simple practical assistance and care, our carers are angels I get to work with every day. They are shaped by trials, pain and perseverance, and I am so profoundly grateful that they have allowed it to teach them true compassion.