Africans in my Lounge Room

Trudy ushered them in, the two-and-two-thirds doctors from Africa. Tall, beautiful and young, each greeted us in perfect Hebrew: ‘Shabbat Shalom’, a peaceful Sabbath. Three smiles of perfect teeth lit our room on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

First and oldest was Tom, thirteen years a doctor, eight months in Australia on a Bridging Visa. Next came Afia, with 18 months’ experience in Ethiopian hospitals and I don’t know how much time in refugee camps. She too holds a Bridging Visa. Last and youngest was Oprah, the vulgar fraction: she has completed four years of medical studies in the Congo. Her birth country is Rwanda. I did not prosecute her with enquiry about her double expatriation. Like the other two, Oprah subsists in Australia at the pleasure of the government. That means the kindness of Mister Morrison.

All three understand fully they can be evicted from this land of asylum at which ever moment Mr Morrison’s kindness might run out. As none of the three came by leaky boat they have the right to work. If they can get work. Trudy brought the three to us to help them find work. I had invited two august medical friends, superbly connected senior people in their fields.

We sat down and talked. Tom outlined his situation. In his early thirties, married, experienced in hospital medicine and a recognized expert in immunisation in third world countries, he is permitted to work here as a doctor only under supervision. At present this distinguished professional works as a medical menial, washing incontinent bodies in a place for the aged. Tom makes no complaints about the red tape, he is grateful to be here, willing to go anywhere – to the outback, to the western suburbs – he just wants to use his training. Can we help him find work? This expert in immunisation – he is just back from Geneva, where he was summoned by the WHO to a conference – with his rich experience of tropical disease would be a gift to a hospital or a tropical medical school or an immunisation project or in policy in any of our tropical zones.

Afia, aged twenty-seven, came to Australia by invitation, to attend the recent world AIDS conference. She applied for asylum with her husband, a chemical engineer who is also looking for work. They too will go anywhere. Afia wants to be a GP. I pictured our large communities of people from the Horn of Africa with Afia as the needed human bridge of cultural understanding to bring these many to safety. I saw the many Aboriginal communities crying out for GP’s.

Oprah has been here for a few weeks. Trudy has given her shelter. Oprah wants to become a nurse. In this country nursing is university course and monumentally expensive. However asylum seekers can pursue TAFE studies at no cost. Oprah managed four years of a medical degree; nursing will not be beyond her grasp. She’d be able to train as a State Enrolled Nurse at TAFE and from that platform gain employment and support herself while studying at Uni. I work with numerous African nurses, highly appreciated in the outback, where the barriers between the African and the whitefella are as nought compared to the gulfs all must cross in indigenous health.

There was little talk of the revolutions, the wars, the massacres; there was scarce mention of refugee camps; there was no complaint, no sense of entitlement, no pity of self, no cries for the families left behind. None of the three had met the others until Trudy brought them together on Saturday and coached them in the Hebrew greeting on our doorstep. Afia, Oprah, Tom, three islands in this distant country, three shimmering humans simply happy to be here, eager to work, to stand up, to make their way.

Theirs is an old, old Australian story. I saw the Reffo, the New Australian, the Boat Person, the Gold Rusher, the survivor of the Shoah, the Balt on the Snowy Scheme, the student from Tiananmen Square. I saw my wife’s mother, a child fleeing Danzig in 1938, I saw my Grandpa arriving here alone, aged thirteen, a stowaway escaping the Ottoman police in Palestine.

There we sat – three young Africans, three old Australian doctors and one good citizen. An atmosphere quietly joyful, of welcome guests meeting grateful hosts, a current flowing back and forth of appreciative respect. A meeting, in short, of human people.

The next morning my wife and I happened to have three guests for brunch. One of the three, an old friend, works with survivors of torture; the second is a classmate from medical school whom I knew is a shy blonde, now President of the World Psychiatric association; the third is her husband, a distinguished gastroenterologist, now practising in Addiction Medicine. Our refugee advocate friend, his face ravaged, spoke of the horrendous week just past in which the Minister of All Prerogatives (Mister Morrison) sold the freeing of 103 detained children in exchange for numberless others, both adults and children. These others are offshore, in another country, beyond the borders of Australian conscience.

My wife and I told our brunch friends of the Africans in our loungeroom. Five Australians, all thoroughly unexceptional in our impulse, in our wish to help, spoke with eager seriousness of people, places, organisations, of contacts, of opportunities and of need. Nothing new, nothing unusual transpired. Five Old Australians, descended from New Australians, animated by memory and self recognition, each saw ‘mon frère, mon semblable’. I read in Sunday’s paper of the endless tides of Libyans escaping likely death, arriving in Italy where the locals, quite overwhelmed, yet see what our Morrisons and Abbotts and Gillards and Shortens will not: they see the human face and they give the arrivals succour.

In the few days since this human weekend I have tried to reach beyond my customary postures of anger and self-righteousness, to grope for understanding of my hard Government, of my soft Opposition, of my fearful fellow citizens in the electorate. I can only surmise that, somehow, at some time, my representatives and my fellow citizens have lost something they used to see – the image of the self in the face of the other.

An afternoon in the loungeroom with guests like mine might change everything.

Not Immune

I remember a boy, Cain. I delivered him at four one morning. He was Jennifer’s third son. Cain was perfect. The year was 1976. We didn’t have a meningitis vaccine in 1976.

***

2013. A young mother sits before me. Lucy (that’s her name) leans forward in her chair, anxious, her newborn baby in a capsule at her feet. Lucy’s love for her baby ties her in knots that she can’t undo. She needs to protect her babe from all harm, from the harm of illness and from the harms of vaccines. Lucy asks me her questions, she needs me to affirm her dread – of the vaccines:

Vaccines are unsafe, aren’t they?

Vaccines are inadequately tested, aren’t they?

Aren’t they contaminated with foreign viruses?

Don’t they contain toxic additives?

Isn’t it true they weaken the immune system?

Aren’t homeopathic preparations just as effective?

Vaccines worsen asthma, don’t they?

I am unable to answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions. I am unable to meet her need. Lucy swallows unhappily. She has been seeing me since she was a young girl. I remember vaccinating her thirty years ago.  Through all sorts of troubles in her teens and in her adult relationships Lucy has come to expect comfort in my advice. But I have no comfort for her today.

Lucy tries again, appealing to me to relieve her dilemma: Infectious diseases aren’t serious anymore, are they?…Aren’t they virtually eliminated?

No, Lucy I wish they were. The truth is germs are becoming stronger, our antibiotics weaker. The germ honeymoon of your childhood and your parents’ is over. Treatments are failing, germs recovering. Only vaccination can prevent the harm that is frightening you. Only vaccines.

 

***

1977. Twelve months after his perfect arrival, Cain was feverish and crying. I could not diagnose his illness. After 48 hours he was no better, in fact he was worse. I sent him to the Children’s Hospital where they performed a lumbar puncture and diagnosed meningitis. Cain survived but was profoundly deaf ever after.

***

1985. Cain has a younger brother, Courtney. There are four boys now, all thriving. Cain attends a normal school where he gets by because his teacher and classmates have learned to sign. Jennifer taught them.

On the morning of May16 – it is school holidays – Jennifer packs her firstborn into the car and drives her husband Chris to where he left his car the previous night. Jennifer recalls Chris had been drinking and wasn’t fit to drive. She drops him at his car and returns home where she finds an ambulance in her street. Her brother-in-law is there and breaks the news.

That same morning in the school term holidays my wife and I take our kids to the movies. During the film my beeper goes off. I call my practice and they tell me the news.

I arrive at Jennifer’s place and knock. She comes out, throws shock-driven arms around her doctor and holds hard. Neither of us speaks. After a time, Jennifer says something I don’t understand: This will make or break our marriage.

She tells me what happened: While I was out, Christian went for a walk out the back and across the tracks. He heard the train and looked behind him. Cain was following, walking into the path of the train. Christian yelled but Cain didn’t hear. Couldn’t hear. Christian ran towards his younger brother, waving, yelling, desperate.

It was no good. The train couldn’t stop. Cain was on the tracks. Christian saw it all.

***

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