The sum of who we are


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Category: Profiles 31 Dec 06


There is so much to sort out, so we can throw out last year’s debris and usher in 2007 with clarity.


The clutter of the mind is worse than a drawer with its incoherent jumble—assorted safety pins, broken beads, unsharpened pencils, rusted scissors, a broken earring, a tender tiny car, a faded letter in pencil, photographs, a moth-eaten childhood book and on and on.


The useless and precious. It’s the sum of who we are. The drawer, like our individual minds, is in a home, belongs to a family who lives in a community in a country, forms part of the world. We are interwoven.


A South African oncologist here in Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Dr Charles Hesdorffer, was able to help me sort through our current technology and trashy bling-obsessed minds.


Dr Hesdorffer represents medicine in an almost forgotten context, of humanity, of a time of passionately wanting to do your bit in the world, when it wasn’t just about the money.


This is the first of a two-part interview with Dr Hesdorffer.


“I grew up in South Africa. As a child, I loved the concept of making people better. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to make a plastic heart and would take clay and make hearts.


“This was before heart transplants came along. I wasn’t the brightest kid on the block. I was of average intelligence, but a hard worker.


“There is a misconception that doctors are the brightest because medical schools are hard to get into.


“A great doctor is of average intelligence, hard-working, pays attention to detail, but compassionate and applies experience and science to the patient and not to the generic disease.


Compassion drop


“This requires interest, dedication and compassion. Compassion and empathy is not something everyone is born with, or will learn.


“Yet it is the heart and soul of medicine.


“I was an intern in Johannesburg under a Dr Bothwell, who is the most incredible person I could have had as an example of how to be a doctor.


“He combined the really intellectual side of medicine with the compassion.


“That’s so rare. He looked after leukemia patients.


“What turned me to oncology and cancer research and away from surgery was the way Dr Bothwell spoke and listened to patients.


“He gave them so much hope, and made them almost happy that they had leukemia because it meant interacting with him.


“If you want to help people, to be a healer, you can’t switch off. You have to be on 24 hours a day. You can’t let the compassion drop.


“Everyone has his or her own limit. You shouldn’t take on more than you can help. That’s the difference between a commercial private medical institution and a state-supported institution like Johns Hopkins.


“Here, you can be the healer, as there are so many colleagues, juniors, interns and nurses to support you. You have the opportunity to take the science and apply it to the patient.


“In private hospitals, it’s about cramming patients, where the object is money and healing goes out of the window.


“The question is how you spread the wonders of billions of dollars worth of American research? Hopkins runs HIV/Aids programmes in Uganda, but only thousands are helped.


“How do you bring it to the millions in developing countries?


“That’s the major problem. It requires a change in the attitude of world leaders, pharmaceutical companies, industry, to believe universal health care and education are the only two important things in the world that will bring prosperity to everybody.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur