You can retire any time you want…

A frontal view of the hospital and with some of its nurses today.

I saw many strange and wonderful things in my other life as a communications officer for Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, but one of the funniest was the reaction of American medical students to a machine in the trauma unit.

The machine had been featured in the Grey’s Anatomy TV series, and while taking the students on tours of the hospital I’d stop and say: “We’re about to go into the trauma procedure room and inside we’ll see, (pause) the Lodox machine.”

After a stunned silence there would be an eruption of voices: “The Lodox machine?”, “I saw that on Grey’s Anatomy!”, “You mean it’s real?”

Once inside they would gush and blush and take photographs with the machine, much to
the entertainment of the staff inside.

The machine is a South African invention, developed for use on the mines to prevent smuggling of diamonds. It does a full-body X-ray in minutes and emits very low doses of radiation.

At the hospital, it is used to get a quick overview of a child’s most serious injuries.

At the time when I worked at the hospital, nearly 10 years ago, the machine was quite rare, but rare and wonderful things were something I would learn to get used to while working there.

The hospital, itself, is a rare commodity. It is one of only two public, children’s hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa. In my day, its only peer was in Egypt, and for many decades, it was the only dedicated children’s hospital in the country.

Children are referred there from far afield, sometimes even from neighbouring African countries, and some treatments are so specialised that many staff are almost impossible to replace.

It is not uncommon for “retired” specialists to carry on working at the hospital for many years. Such as Professor Emeritus Heinz Rode.

The white-haired specialist was in his 70s when I worked there, but he was still capably carrying out delicate surgeries and was sought after in his field – burns.

According to the current hospital communications officer, Dwayne Evans, Professor Rode underwent a slow retirement from surgery and no longer operates, but he is still active at the hospital in other ways.

Another example is nurse-turned-
engineer, Toni Whithair (that’s two scarce skills in case you’re counting).

Ms Whithair retired before I left the hospital, but when I returned recently to browse through old photographs for this story, I discovered that she was still there and still working hard, liaising between architects, artisans, hospital management and staff about designs for areas
that need restructuring or replacement.

She took me on a quick tour of one of her more recent labours of love, the refurbished and extended ICU, and was still affectionately greeted as “Sister Whithair” as she passed, even though she hasn’t worked as a nurse in many years.

Professor Rode and Ms Whithair are like the hospital itself, in that some of its previous primary functions have been “retired” yet still operate.

The opening of subsidiary hospitals in recent years and the referral system have retired many of the hospital’s former functions, but many parents still willingly travel past clinics and day hospitals on their doorsteps and take their children straight to Red Cross because of their long-standing faith in the hospital, despite the strain this puts on the hospital’s resources.

Other services, such as polio treatment, underwent a slow retirement. The first patients to be admitted at the hospital after it opened in 1956 had been crippled by polio, but polio services became slowly obsolete, thanks to immunisation.

In other ways, the hospital is unlike its retired die-hards because it does not show its age at all. This is, in a large part, due to the huge support it gets through its Friends of the Children’s Hospital Association and the Children’s Hospital Trust.

These non-profits have acquired amazing donations, such as the Lodox machine, for the hospital over the years.

The Friends was born in 1978 after Professor Marius Barnard, brother of the famous Christiaan, placed an appeal in a newspaper for volunteers. The appeal attracted an enormous response and, today, dozens of volunteers still work at the hospital.

The Trust was started by the facility board in 1994, after the hospital came dangerously close to closing down due to financial constraints.

Since then it has raised hundreds of millions of rand for infrastructure and equipment upgrades, became a free-standing organisation and extended its arms to the hospital’s subsidiaries.

Crossing the Borders of Power – The memoirs of Colin Eglin tells of the origins of the hospital.

Mr Eglin served with the Sixth South African Armoured Division in Italy during World War II, and in his autobiography, he describes the conversations he and his comrades had about whether a war memorial should be built in South Africa, and if so, what form it should take.

“The dominant view was that there should be a memorial but that this should be a ‘living’ one that served the community, not merely a monumental structure.

“After various proposals, the decision was that it should take the form of a top-class children’s hospital.

“The servicemen, in overwhelming numbers, volunteered to donate two days’ pay towards what was to become the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.”

The soldiers gave the money and the mission to the South African Red Cross Society. Over the next 11 years, the society would raise more funds and the building of the hospital began in 1952, at a cost of R1.6 million.

Today this would not even build one ward.

The completed hospital was handed over to the Cape Provincial Administration in 1956.

That is the strange and wonderful story of how the hospital got its long name and 63 years later it is still soldiering on.