Evening clouds

Evening clouds
Sunshine and Clouds

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

70 degrees of separation

Many will be familiar with the idea that there only 6 degrees of separation between ourselves and others; there are only a few connections between us all whether famous or not. I'm talking about two different places I've visited where the temperature has been separated by 70 degrees Celsius.

It was early 1999 when I joined palliative care colleagues in a visit to Kemerovo in Siberia where one day the temperature was a challenging -35 degrees; currently I'm in Potchefstroom South Africa where I've been able to enjoy +35 degrees. The link is once again sharing my experiences in palliative and end of life care, recognizing I've worked in this area of practice for 25 years. 
So why here in Potch? My partner Megan has been invited here to be an Extraordinary Professor at North-West University Potchefstroom campus, in the School of Education. As her term of office begins we came here at the invitation of the Uni team. I was just going to be a hanger-on for the two weeks, reveling in the first two week break from work for some time. The Uni team had other ideas and recognizing I had my own area of expertise, in end of life care put me me in touch with the Education psychology and nursing departments of NWU. The upshot has been an opportunity to visit the local hospital and to deliver a presentation to two groups at NWU about ethics in end of life care as well as having difficult conversations. In between we have been able to share meals and time traveling in the area, visiting schools and a game park. All very interesting, though the game park details will have to wait another day. 
The two visits have taken place in places undergoing significant change, in political, cultural and social senses. In addition the organisation of resources for health and education has changed. For brevities sake I'll focus on our current visit, that's starting about 150km SW of Johannesburg.

We have experienced great generosity - time, food and drink, and travel. I hadn't realised just how big a country South Africa is. Our travels have included 3-4 hour drives and we have covered only a small part of one province. We're flying to Cape Town later; the time it takes would get us to the Mediterranean from southern UK. For many here though travel is a luxury with poor public transport; so travel from rural areas to the nearest healthcare provision is only undertaken when you're very sick. The result means many arrive at the state funded hospitals in towns like Potch (where there is no hospice) with advanced diseases and in need of end of life care. Being HIV+ is very common and so is tuberculosis, often going together. Getting people to understand the importance of maintaining the anti-viral therapies and the long  term TB treatments is an important priority. The message of changing behaviour about sex and HIV transmission is loud and strong yet some feel that the very strength of the message over a long  time is counterproductive.

The opportunities to meet students and colleagues at the university and hospital have been invaluable to help understand the joys and difficulties of life here. That people are trying to improve services is encouraging yet difficult given the differences of resource provision between provinces. This was highlighted in the difference in the number of educational psychologists in the Western Cape area approx 130, and the 4 in the North Western Cape where we are. Seeing the expertise and enterprise of North-West University in making links with Potchefstroom Hospital, to the benefit of patients and psychology students has been great to see. End of life care is a big part of what the hospital does so sharing my expertise and stories has been a pleasure and made this leave from work so much more rewarding. It has also helped me to appreciate the fund of examples and experiences I've had, as well as realise there is lots more for me to learn. I'm immensely grateful for the opportunities my career has thrown up; I never expected these travels. I am very pleased though that there is now far less than 70 degrees of separation between my understanding of what's happening in South Africa and my working life at home.

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