Yesterday I was showing a very well-dressed Asian woman and her son around the lodge. She was groomed, educated and terribly glamorous. This was around 11:30 in the morning. After they left, Storm came into my office and looked at my not-so well-dressed and much less glamorous self and said; “What’s on your cheek?” I touched my cheek only to find a big blob of crunchy peanut butter. It dawned on me that around 8am, a post-surgical patient, Mr Patel was so happy to see me that he gave me a hug and a kiss on my cheek while eating his toast. I had been walking around sporting the nutty spread ON MY FACE while trying to impress the potential guests. I’m not sure what impression I made on them, but sophisticated and classy, it was not.


My entire life I have believed first impressions are important (just look how many quotes there are about them!) but lately, I’m starting to think that first impressions are overrated. Actually, I think it is nonsense. I will go as far as to say that I am a very poor judge of character and therefore, never employ people after interviews anymore.  I now  make a decision once I have worked with a person and gotten to know them. (Now is not the time to unpack the smorgasbord of bad decisions I’ve made in that department, but let it be known, that if I ever write a book, there will be many chapters on this crime scene!)


I remember the first impression when I met my best friend. It was 1979 on our first day of school in grade 1. There she sat opposite me, pale little face, unbrushed black hair and huge green eyes. My heart broke for her. She was the only kid in the class without the necessary “stuff”. I recalled how my mom made sure over the past months that I had all my duly labelled pencils, ruler, face cloth, little plastic cup etc, and here sat Hanneke, without any of it. My active imagination jumped into action. I immediately decided that she must be someone we always read about in fables and story books. She must be POOR! I decided that she needed a friend, and I would be it… fast forward to the next day, and she arrived with pencils, cups, facecloth and fancy school bag. Turns out her mom was actually a professor and simply had bigger academic pressures to attend to on that day, like PhD’s to evaluate, rather than focusing on getting the exact pencil case prescribed by the notorious TED (Transvaal Education Department). They were many things, but poor they were not! Hanneke’s first impression of me was that I was slightly feral, was hanging on the playground equipment like a blonde chimpanzee and was a bit stupid as I was unable to stay upright in my chair for long. She decided, just like I did, that I too needed a friend, and she would be it. She wanted to tame me. I wanted to rescue her. She did not need rescuing… I think I needed taming but only Ritalin managed to do so 40 years after that fateful day.


And so, my track record of drawing wrong conclusions based on first impressions continues. Last week we picked up a 95-year-old gentleman from his home, after his wonderfully committed son cared for him for 18 months. He was quite grumpy. He is ill and he is with us for end-of-life care. He was non-verbal and incredibly weak. I did not think he’d survive the 4km drive to the lodge, but he did. He was deathly pale and looked at me with huge blue eyes as I tried to spoon custard into his mouth. He did not eat for days before he came to us. Fast forward nine days and he is chatting to us, in a heavy Welsch accent which we would have battled to understand with or without his wobbling dentures. He is demanding loops around the lodge in the wheelchair and ate a proper meal of mash and lamb casserole last night… and then he had a Guinness. So much for him not living through his first day with us!


I have a tenant whom, on first impression, I mistook for an eighty’s punk rocker who time travelled to us. Half her head is shaven, the other half is dyed bright fuchsia (for the men reading this, fuchsia is like a bright pink-purple). She has a variety of nose rings and tattoos and wears big glasses, but the moment she opens her mouth, whatever you might have assumed based on her appearances evaporates. She is one of the smartest psychologists I have ever met (both clinical and counselling), her command of the English language is unknown outside academic circles, and she is absolutely hilarious. If I had allowed my first impression to influence my assessment of this chick being super weird, I would have denied myself a rewarding friendship, and an interaction with someone who does not simply challenge my views daily, but graciously shares her extensive knowledge on psychology and the world at large. (She does keep wanting to rescue cats and bring them to her practice, which is something I need to deal with – so it is not all moonlight and roses).


My initial misjudgments are not just reserved for friends, tenants, guests and staff. No, this superpower extends to other important people in my life. Take my physio, Amie Stewart. She is dainty and beautiful, clever and charming. She has all the qualities you would want in a friend or wife. But let me tell you, there is a reason I have saved her in my phone under “Nazi-Barbie”. She has a way of working you that  leaves you convinced Adolf Eichman has been reincarnated and is busy trying to massage you straight in to the third Reich… and then afterwards, you forgive her completely as she fixes you in half the time it would take anyone else.

Speaking of Amie, her team and mine are in the process of helping a gent by the name of Silvino (if you are a regular reader, you might be following the story), who was in Charlotte Maxeke’s ICU for nine months. If I had to let those fragile moments of meeting him for the first time determine how I viewed him, it would not have served either of us. Silvino arrived here with his wife and our carer George. I do not know what people looked like after surviving a labour or concentration camp during WW2, but I think it pretty much resembled what Silvino looked like. He was deathly pale, his eyes were sunken deep into his skull, and he looked brittle, as if he would break at any second. In those first moments I knew, based on conversations with his wife, that he was courageous and had an incredible will to survive, but just looking at him in that state, any logical person would have concluded was this was a dead man walking. Getting to know him over the past two weeks has been like a tapestry that takes shape before your eyes. He arrived with so much of him broken and stitched together that I went cold all over. What if we could not serve him well? What if his care was too complex? When he first felt the sun on his skin after so many days without it, he broke down in tears. When he first felt water on his skin in the shower, something we all thought he would love, he cried out in pain. He became so accustomed to heartless bed baths that the mercy of running water became a stranger. We were told about his symptoms and diagnoses before we met him and so built our image of who and what he was on those assumptions, but he was and is so much more than that. In 14 days, he has filled out in every sense of the word, not just physically, but emotionally. He laughs now and holds eye contact. He feeds himself. Read that again. He was being fed through a PEG in his stomach when he arrived with us. He is about to have the catheter removed as bladder training is going so well. The cavity where the trachea tube was is closing up as he does not need it anymore. As he is healing, so is his family. So are we. We dared to believe in miracles and that people would believe with us,and they did.


Malcolm Gladwell (whom I think might very well be my favourite Canadian man ever) said; “Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions… by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.”. How lucky are we that we get these incredibly authentic experiences in which we see people with absolute clarity? There is no posing, impressing or pomp and ceremony needed here. It is unnecessary to put on a show for someone when they have held your hair back when you vomit or when they have tenderly guided you onto a bedpan. Why bother putting on a façade when you know you are accepted and loved without it?


I have realised that it is okay to walk around with peanut butter on your face. The potential guest is bringing her sister to me tomorrow. She knows I might not be camera-ready at all times, but she trusts us enough to look after her sister for her final precious weeks.