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Johannesburg - Doctor Phyllis Phukubye could be bitter after she was treated disrespectfully by paramedics and onlookers when she told them she was a doctor and tried to help an accident victim in vain recently.
But, although the 27-year-old was disheartened by her racist experience, she prefers to stay positive and is adamant the incident will not distract her from her doctor’s oath – to help anyone who needs her.
Last Friday, on her way home from Helen Joseph Hospital in Auckland Park, Phukubye stopped on the side of Douglas Road, Joburg, to assist a motorcycle accident victim. He was badly hurt and surrounded by many bystanders – “mostly white people”.
“The ambulance hadn’t arrived yet. When I got there, I introduced myself to the victim and the people standing around the victim. I then proceeded to assist him,” she said.
The man appeared to have a head injury and his left leg was broken.
“I put on my gloves and attempted to assist the man. But no one seemed to believe that I was a doctor or a health professional, because they kept uttering stupid remarks in the background. They were even telling me what to do and what not to do.
“Some (white) lady just assumed that I was a nurse and kept saying to me that her son’s friend is a doctor and he was on his way to the scene.”
Phukubye said when the paramedics eventually arrived, they “shooed” her away.
“When I explained that I was a doctor the guy kept shouting at me to hold the patient’s head. ‘Hold his head? What’s that going to do? I asked. ‘He needs his neck stabilised. He’s also bleeding, he needs an IV line and something for pain.’
“But (the paramedic) kept screaming that if I was really a doctor, I must ‘just’ hold the patient’s head.
“In trying to immobilise his left leg, I gently held the leg, but the paramedic who was with him came up to the patient with a cigarette in his mouth and tried to restrain the patient. When I explained he shouldn’t attempt to physically restrain him, he also got upset and raised his voice, questioning who I was. Eventually I was physically pushed away.”
At that point, Phukubye just walked away and assumed that the patient was in good hands.
“What’s really ironic is that this same paramedic team could have easily come to Helen Joseph Hospital and handed over the patient to me with mutual respect. But because right now I’m just a small, black girl in my jeans with nothing but my word to take for being a doctor, they treated me like a piece of nothing! So I walked away thinking that I will never ever stop to help a white person on the side of the road ever again.”
When she got home, she came across a quote by African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King jr, which states: “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a human or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
This quote, she said, changed her perspective of the experience she had just had.
“I felt so disheartened at that point, but in the midst of my anger I saw that quote. It was so powerful and it made me realise that I have to help people who need me. I have to use my skills to do that. I am adamant about that,” Phukubye said.
Lucy Holborn, of the SA Institute of Race Relations, said she could not say whether such incidents were common. However, it pointed to a lack of trust in society.
“This lack of trust exists between people of different race groups and cultures, but also more generally.
“Stories of fake doctors and people posing as police officers, and general crime and violence in South Africa, have turned us into a very untrusting society.”
Holborn said in this case, the racial element seemed also to have come into play.
“Part of the lack of trust between race groups, in my view, comes from the fact that knowledge and understanding of each other is still lacking for many people. While at a formal level many areas of society have integrated, such as at workplaces, universities, hospitals and so on, at a social level racial integration still seems to be quite patchy.
“If some people are not socialising across racial lines – not always by choice, but maybe due to where they live or their social standing or whatever – then their understanding of people from different race groups is likely to be limited, and the potential for distrust and prejudice is more likely.”
Holborn said, however, that the way Phukubye dealt with the situation and the change in her attitude was admirable.
“While her initial reaction is very understandable, race relations do ultimately come down to individual decisions about how people choose to treat other people,” she said.
“By not holding on to her anger, one might hope she plays a small role in changing exactly the attitude that made her angry in the first place. And I don’t think she is necessarily letting the experience go, but rather, as you put it, trying to turn it into something positive.”