South African doctors should remember that they don't live in a vacuum but in a society in which there is much suffering. They should think back to why they became doctors and serve their fellow human beings with love, kindness, compassion and mercy, “remembering that the dignity of man is foremost".
This was the impassioned message of Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the much-loved disaster-response organisation, Gift of the Givers, in a recent address he delivered at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.
In his speech, entitled Active Citizenry – the Door to South Africa's Success, Sooliman called on South African medical professionals to carefully consider how they approach their work, and to serve all people, regardless of their circumstances, with respect, kindness and compassion.
Recalling the origins of his organisation, Sooliman described how he met a Sufi during a trip to Turkey around 30 years ago. This spiritual leader instructed him to establish an organisation that unconditionally “serves people of all races, religions, colours, classes, cultures, from all geographical locations, and of any political affiliation".
Since then, Gift of the Givers has implemented more than 20 different categories of projects, and delivered more than R4,5 billion in aid in 45 countries. It has helped in floods, droughts, wars, fires, earthquakes, and also played a major role in South Africa's response to Covid-19.
Sooliman said doctors in South Africa “need to understand the suffering of people. We forget about emotion, about the touch, the soft voice.
“We must remember human dignity in our profession. We deal with suffering – people with no homes, people with no food. How are we attuned to that dignity?"
He described how, in the aftermath of Covid-19, he handed a food parcel to a mother in the Eastern Cape. “She takes the parcel and says, 'thank you very much'. She says, 'talk to my children, they will tell you the taste of every plant. For the last three months, we have survived eating plants.'"
He also told the story of a child coming into a soup kitchen. The child was malnourished and had no shirt, jersey or shoes – despite it being winter. The child asked if he didn't eat much if he could take some food to his family at home who haven't eaten in days.
“Children are forced to become adults," said Sooliman. “The people of our country have gone through great difficulty. We have an obligation to help those who don't have support. We must be careful, because when you go out as a medical person, you are God himself to these people. We cannot betray their trust.
He asked doctors how much they value their responsibility and how serious they are about the ethical considerations of their work. “Dignity is important in every step of our existence in South Africa. Wipe the tear of a grieving child, caress the head of an orphan, say words of good counsel to a widow. These things are free."
Paying warm tribute to the Gift of the Givers teams who travel the world providing disaster relief, Sooliman stressed how much can be achieved when people commit themselves to a cause. “During disasters, some organisations provide food, some provide blankets, some tents, others medicine. We South Africans are the only ones who do all of these at the same time. In Somalia, in three hours, we set up an entire hospital with ICU, oxygen, theatre, gynae, paediatrics, CT scan, ultrasound and everything else. This is the skill of the people who train in our schools, hospitals and universities. We can be very proud as a country."
While South Africa has challenges, it is up to all citizens to help fix them. “We survived floods, Covid-19, the civil unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and stage six loadshedding!
“This country doesn't belong to the government, it belongs to me, you, and 65 million South Africans. When we take ownership, we start fixing things ourselves. We hold hands and contribute to the good together."