I have recently finished reading a South African book about 3 young female doctors doing their internship at a hospital in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal. One of them, the daughter of wealthy parents in Cape Town, is at first rather shocked. Coming from her own flat, car etc. during studying she drives to the hospital to discover she’ll be living in a little prefab house, dreadful basic furniture, a hospital in disarray from inability to plan and manage at the top, plus a lot of graft and corruption.
The patients are the poorest, so many suffering from the consequences of untreated HIV, dying of aids. Others just too poor to come in often enough for treatment. The usual tragedies among poor rural people, fights with knives and pangas, difficult childbirth that kills the mother, Diarrhoea that kills babies, simple ailments that untreated become fatal, overcrowded wards etc. She has to deal with things she hadn’t realised existed.
And as she (and her parents who come to ‘rescue’ her and send her out of the country to do her internship) realise she is in one of the saddest and worst hospitals to be in, she realises that she CAN make a difference. She is able to help some, she can organise people to help paint and clean the children’s ward so that it is pleasant for them.
Having reached the bottom of the heap in terms of hospitals for her internship, she realises it’s a place where she can be herself and become the doctor she wanted to be, making a difference, and decides to stay on for her year of community service.
The second, believing the place where she was born, Aliwal North and the rural, rather ignorant and definitely poor family there is really the pits, is torn between two cultures. She had been raised by a former employer of her mother, and supported through medical school by her. After her mother dies and she returns to Aliwal North for the funeral, she finds at her personal ‘bottom of the heap’ realisations about herself, that she can marry the two cultures and feel more ‘herself’. She finds the balance she needs to move on with her life in the direction she had hoped, and to find ways to help her sister and tiny niece as well, finding comfort in having a family she hadn’t really ever know,
The third, a young Indian woman, recently married in an arranged marriage, who is abused by her husband, who definitely does not want to be there, reaches the bottom when she realises he would abuse their children of they ever had any. She tells her mother she wants a divorce, and instead of supporting her, her mother tells of her own dismal marriage, and tells her she will be disowned by the family if she divorces. She emerges from her own private ‘bottom’ with the brief help of a more senior doctor and the personal bravery she discovers when protecting a child from its abuser.
These young women reach the bottom and discover there themselves, their strength and determination. It’s a wakeup call of the type so many over-privileged youngsters need.