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A Day in the Life of Poppy Tombazana

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The alarm clock by Poppy’s side rang shrilly; she sleepily reached out a hand and knocked the thing over. It kept on ringing.

Poppy sat up slowly and switched off the alarm. The dial read 5:05. She yawned and stretched her arms above her head. Outside, a taxi was noisily passing by, searching for passengers. Poppy yawned once more and got out of bed. She somehow felt more tired than usual.

She went into the bathroom and relieved herself, thinking of the events of the previous evening, and shuddered. Dr. Weir had left the clinic late. There had been an influx of new cases, and Poppy wondered for how long they would be able to cope if no new staff was going to be employed. She herself was only a voluntary worker.

She started brushing her teeth and in the distance she heard the Call to Prayer sounding from the local mosque.

She thought of her own condition as she began taking ablution; she thought of the anti-retroviral treatment that she was on, and she wondered for how long it would sustain her. Dr. Weir had said there was no reason why she should not lead a healthy, normal life, if she stuck to the treatment and looked after herself.

But she was worried. She felt listless at times, and she sometimes couldn’t sleep. Many a night she would wake up, drenched in sweat and with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

She left the bathroom and laid a prayer mat on the floor. Her husband Alfred had died two years ago. She had contracted AIDS from him.

She started her rituals and she suddenly started to cry. “O ALLAH!” she uttered. “Please don’t let me die now. There is still so much to do.”

She had embraced Islam when she was 36. She was 42 now and had no children.

Alfred had been a good husband; her face softened as she thought of him. He had provided for her well. The sickness that he had carried with him had been there from the days he had been imprisoned in Angola for political reasons. He had only become aware of his status when he had been involved in a car accident, and by that time he had already infected her with the dreaded disease. She still missed him a lot. She sometimes imagined that he was in the house and he would call out to her. She completed her rituals.

She left the house as the sun began painting the horizon with a deep, orange glow. There was already a stream of cars making their way along the freeway and she flagged down a taxi. She could feel the heat on her face and she knew it was going to be a hot day. There was hardly a breeze in the air. The TV had said it was going to be 32 degrees centigrade, she thought glumly as she squeezed in next to a fat woman, who was wiping sweat from her glistening face. Poppy wondered what this new day held for her.

She reached the clinic at about 7:00, and there was a sizable queue forming outside. People here in the rural parts of Kwa Zulu Natal had to travel early if they wanted to be attended to at the only clinic for miles around. Many of them walked.

The clinic wasn’t very big. It had two sections: the administration and preparation area, where patients’ blood pressure was taken and preliminary examinations done, and the doctors’ rooms, which were supposed to accommodate three doctors. There was also a holding area, where casualties and trauma cases were seen to. Severe cases were either flown by helicopter or transported by ambulance to the nearest general hospital, depending on the severity of the case.

Poppy grimaced. Nowadays it was mostly Dr. Weir attending to a horde of patients, and he wasn’t that young anymore. She felt sorry for him.

“Nurse,” said someone as she unlocked the preparation room door. “I’m hungry.”

She saw that it was Lucky, a developmentally disabled person who sometimes helped to clean around the premises, and who always waited for her at the door. She smiled at him and told him to wait, wondering how he managed to come to the clinic every morning, seeing that both his parents had died from AIDS, and he lived with a relative in another part of town who didn’t work and never received any social grant. The distance was too far to walk.

Lucky smiled back at her with big buck teeth, almost as if he could read her thoughts.

Poppy shuddered involuntarily as she thought of the man in his early 30’s who had caused such a stir the previous day, when he had unceremoniously started to vomit blood all over the reception floor. She remembered how the woman sitting next to him had screamed when he had suddenly grabbed her arm and pleaded for help.

Poppy had managed to calm him down, and she and two other nurses had gotten him onto a stretcher where Dr. Weir had immediately seen to him. She wondered how he was doing and she made a mental note to go and find out. HIV/AIDS was so rife here in Pumelalane, and people were dying at such an alarming rate that at some stage she felt afraid that there would be no one left to care for the orphaned children.

Dr. Weir was already in his room when Poppy knocked. He was sipping from a cup and the smell of coffee pervaded the air. He had a pensive look on his thin face.

“Good morning, Doctor,” she said, and came to stand before him where he was sitting at his desk. “You are early.”

He did not reply, but she could see that something was troubling him. She did not speak further.

Dr. Weir shook his head, and Poppy couldn’t help noticing how drained he looked. “Are you okay, Doctor?”

“Yes. I’m okay. I’m just very tired.” He kept on shaking his head. “You know that young man who came in yesterday, the one who vomited blood on the floor?”

Poppy stared at him. “Yes?”

“He’s dead.”

Poppy felt a cold shiver running down her spine. She wondered if she was also going to vomit blood before she died. Tears welled up in her eyes. “When did he die?”

“At about eleven last night. He is still lying in the wash room. He’s got no family.”

Poppy shuddered. “So what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve contacted Jabu from Social Services. He said he’ll send someone out today.”

Poppy left Dr. Weir’s room, wiping the tears that were now running freely down her cheeks. She saw the young man’s face before her again; the gaunt look of utter despair, the eyes that stood dead still in their sockets. She thought of the HIV/AIDS campaign she and the other nurses had started and she became more determined to fight this scourge with everything at her disposal. They had already begun by fetching groups of people at their houses, taking them on outings, providing food for them, and practically demonstrating the importance of healthy living and sound practices. It was slow but there was real progress.

She turned her face upwards. “O, ALLAH. Let me die with dignity.” A silent prayer went through her mind as she walked towards the holding area. “Let me die amongst friends and amongst those who love me and whom I love. Please let me me not leave this world in disgrace.”

“Nurse, come quickly!” a woman with a child in her arms shouted, panicking. “He’s not breathing!”

Brenda, one of the other nurses, came running over and took the child from her.

“Please don’t let him die!”

Together, Brenda and Poppy administered CPR. “Come on. Breathe!” Poppy almost willed, and pressing down rhythmically on the child’s chest. Brenda blew down his throat.

“O, ALLAH. Please do not let this child die. Please!” Poppy said out loud, and there was a sudden cough from the child. “Let him live. Please.”

The child started to cry, while the mother hugged him so tight that the nurses were afraid she would hurt him.

“Thank you, ALLAH,” cried Poppy as the other nurse took the child from the woman. “Thank you.”

And so began another day in the life of Poppy Tombazana, where existence here in the rural areas of Kwa Zulu Natal was an uphill battle to survive each day; where death was a constant reminder of how transitory human life was, and how traumatic yet utterly rewarding your services to your fellow human beings could be.

She couldn’t thank the ALMIGHTY enough for giving her the strength each day to perform her duties.

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