Health is more than medicine

Dr Mary Wren.
Dr Mary Wren.
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I went to work in a mission hospital in Zululand 28 years ago.

This was a choice I made as part of my training and was an amazing experience. I was the only student in a rural hospital, some operations were done following instructions in a book.

My dad recently gave me the letters I wrote while there – weekly accounts of what I was doing and what I thought about it. I have loved reading them and have been refreshed and inspired by my enthusiasm and excitement.

It struck me how simple and yet how rich life was there. One comment I made was how we had to rely on history and examination as there were no blood tests available. We had to listen well, use our instinct and examine thoroughly. I record the satisfaction of draining abscesses, repairing wounds and delivering babies (sometimes without gloves).

I also record the fun of working as a team, the humour, the joy of the people and pleasure in going to work every day.

We drove through the bush to clinics –parking as near as possible–then walking two miles and wading across a river to get there. All we had was ourselves, our wisdom and knowledge and some basic medications and dressings. Somehow we dealt with most of what we were faced with and people went home grateful and happy. I write how I went in to work in my pyjamas early one morning to deliver a baby and how the doctors were available all hours – yet loved what they did.

The letters are filled with adventure, excitement, small pleasures, gratefulness, fun, laughter, joy and beauty. It made me think I want to capture something and bring it into the technological, stress-ridden, tick- box, instant-access, complicated NHS of today. It is almost as if the more technology we have, the sicker people are. Or the more accessible health care is, the less grateful people are for what they have. It feels like our Western view that the more complicated and impressive the operation, the more free and accessible the tablets or the more therapists and counsellors we have then the healthier we will be. Something isn’t working. Maybe we are missing a basic truth that less is sometimes more and health is more than medicine. I would like to go back.