Archives For health care


April 2, 2015 — Leave a comment

IMG_1408When we’re young, we believe our dads are superheroes who can protect us from all types of risk and danger. As fathers, we internalize that all-powerful role. No matter how old our kids are, we like to think that we can always swoop in to their rescue. But with Mtuseni, in many ways I’ve been powerless — and it’s a constant source of stress, anxiety and frustration.

This is not to say I do nothing for him. I put him through school. I send him emergency money and boxes of clothes. I’ve replaced more phones than I care to count. I’ve guided him through academic stumbles and boosted him through crises of confidence.These are the challenges that most dads can handle; they’re part of the basic job description.

The things that are beyond my control are systemic. Being poor in South African, Mtuseni faces problems that I never anticipated and which seem to arise in ever-changing forms. Here’s a sample from the past month:

  • The strong US dollar led the South African government to jack up gas prices this week. This will surely increase Mtuseni’s commute costs, which already take up most of the City Year stipend.
  • Because he leaves so early for his two-hour commute, Mtuseni skips breakfast — and even with cash infusions from me, he can only afford a tiny lunch. He says the two-dollar nutrition bars I tell him to get for breakfast are too expensive. He’s losing weight; even his friends see it. He’s never had one ounce of fat, and I worry if this might be caused by something other than caloric intake.
  • Two weeks ago he saw a bad taxi accident on his way to Joburg and felt nervous. The taxis he rides are notorious for renegade driving, and South Africa has the worst highway fatality rate in the world.
  • After learning at City Year that asbestos is harmful, Mtuseni is afraid to sleep in his wallboard shack — because that’s what his ceiling/roof is made of, which was news to me. He wants the tiles gone, but there’s no money to replace them. Working with them would be dangerous; he built the room with his late brother a few years ago, so he’s already been exposed.

So this is the most recent slate of problems, which are layered on top of ongoing issues. Winter is coming, and Mtuseni can see outdoors through wide gaps in his walls in the unheated shack. Candles used for light have burned down local shacks in the past, and a generator recently leaked gas into his dirt floor. Despite his asbestos worries, I don’t want to tell him that the kerosene lamps they use are equivalent to smoking a daily pack of cigarettes. People in the settlement get sick and die on a regular basis. The family’s gas-powered fridge barely keeps food cool, and Mtuseni seems to have little knowledge of food-borne risks. Living in an informal settlement, there’s always the chance of a forced eviction. On Google maps, new housing developments are springing up near his tiny community; a landowner could sell to a developer and kick everybody out at any time.

I could go on, but it would throw me into despair. And besides, I’m Superdad. I’m all-powerful.

IMG_2269I want to fly in and take Mtuseni away from the shack, put him in a safe, warm house with water and electricity. I want him to have as much food as a 22-year-old guy can eat (and based on his visits to the US, he can eat!). I want to get him a car so he can avoid riding in the dangerous taxis. I want to find him a great job where he’s happy and earning a good living. I want to get his young sister and brother out of the shack and away from the risks of illness and violence. I want to fill all the public schools in South Africa with computers and libraries and qualified teachers. I want all the poor residents to have health and nutrition education and access to quality medical care. I want to ride in on a white stallion and bitch-slap the ANC government to take smart, innovative action to fix the country’s problems, rescuing not only Mtuseni but all the kids in South Africa.

But I’m only one man, and super heroes only exist in the movies. So I do the best I can for my son. In America, that’s usually enough. But when faced with the challenges of raising a kid in a developing country, I feel like the proverbial 98-pound weakling on the beach. Still, Mtuseni is ever grateful for what I do and calls me his magician. I just wish I had more rabbits to pull out of my hat.

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Two Sides of 50

January 19, 2014 — 2 Comments


An ongoing item in the news this month has been Michelle Obama’s birthday — noteworthy because she turns 50. She celebrated with an extra week of me-time in Hawaii after Christmas when Barack and the kids left. And she had a posh cocktail-and-dessert party in the White House. Happy, sad, or scary — it’s a milestone; might as well celebrate in style if you can.

I saw an article about celebrities turning 50 this year. It’s weird to think of people who in your mind are frozen in a certain younger time hitting the half-century mark. If they’re that old, how old am I? Rob Lowe is turning 50. I hated his smarmy character and Peter Pan pretty-boy face in St. Elmo’s Fire — and I still hate him. Sandra Bullock is gonna be 50. Wasn’t she just a young ingenue driving an out-of-control bus a couple months ago with Keanu Reeves (also 50 this year)? Add to the list Courteney Cox, Matt Dillon, Melissa Gilbert (isn’t she still in pigtails running across the prairie?!). Even Brad Pitt is hitting the Big 5-0 this year. Lately I’ve noticed his face looks as lined and tired as mine — and I’m four years older. Sweet!!

And in all this birthday talk of celebrities — and us regular people, too — is the idea that 50 is the new 30. It’s just the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in our amazing, privileged American lives, and we have decades ahead of us to fulfill dreams and create new ones. Hell, some guy in California just went skydiving for the first time on his 100 birthday! Maybe 50 is the new 15!

Mtuseni's FamilySomeone else turned 50 this month — Mtuseni’s mom, Nester. She’s a pretty, petite, gracious woman. I can’t wait to spend more time with her on my next visit to Johannesburg. She has probably asked god to bless me 10,000 times for all I’ve done for Mtuseni; she could not offer him the same on her meager salary. She has a hard life, raising three kids alone in a brick shack with no electricity or plumbing. Her oldest son Moses was killed by a car a few years ago. She’s had a few health scares lately — I think from stress and exhaustion — but there’s little money for doctors and certainly none for regular checkups. And of course the first 30 years of her life were spent under apartheid.

If 50 is the new 30 in the US, the calculus is a little different in South Africa. The average life span for a black woman in South Africa is 49. Does this mean Nester is living on borrowed time now, at age 50? When I pass the US male life expectancy of 77, I’m sure it’ll feel like the rest are lucky bonus years. How many bonus years does Nester have left? The number of people in Mtuseni’s community and circles who have died in the four years I’ve known him is shocking — and I haven’t heard about everyone, I’m sure.

So in addition to worrying about Mtuseni getting an internship, getting a job, and staying healthy — there’s always a small knot in the back of my mind worrying about Nester’s health. Because that precious family depends on her — and 50 has a different meaning in their corner of the world.

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Doctor Dad

October 9, 2013 — 5 Comments

sickSince taking on the surrogate father role with Mtuseni, I’ve had to wear many hats: coach, cheerleader, task master, advocate, therapist, researcher, consoler, educator, employment agent — the list keeps growing. But I never expected to be his personal epidemiologist.

Since I’ve known him, Mtuseni has often been sick. Fever, flu, cold sores, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, congestion. Since I brought him some multivitamins last year — and continue to keep him stocked — he’s had far fewer bouts of cold and flu. But I’ll still get anguished reports of periodic stomach problems from him, told in his drama-queen style. (He can be a big baby when sick.) But some people (thankfully not me) are more prone to stomach bugs so I didn’t give it much thought, just waited for “I’m weak and dying” texts to switch to “I’m fine now.”

But when Mtuseni was here in Boston this summer, a small incident opened a new perspective for me on his tummy troubles. One night after supper he cleaned up the kitchen while I did some work. I came in later to put a few things back in their usual spot, and noticed the leftover rotisserie chicken wasn’t in the fridge. I looked in the cabinets and the trash but couldn’t find it. When I asked Mtuseni, he said “I put it in the oven” and, sure enough, there was the unwrapped bird sitting in the microwave. I chuckled incredulously and told him that stuff like this needs to go in the refrigerator. He was watching TV and only half-listened.

But this got me thinking… Is this how Mtuseni would normally store leftover food at home? The image of cooked meat sitting on a shelf overnight in his stifling shack haunted me.

So this past Monday he is “super sick” with cramps and vomiting. I ask if anyone else in school or the community is sick and he says only him and mom. With symptoms isolated to just the family, it sounds like food poisoning to me — and I think about the unwrapped roasted chicken. And then I think about the lack of running water. And handling raw meat. And mom’s pen of goats in the yard. And the outhouses. And the barely cool glass of Coke mom served me from their gas-powered refrigerator.

When I first asked Mtuseni to look for vitamins and explained how beneficial they are, he asked, “What are these magic pills?” If he didn’t know about vitamins (despite taking science and life skills classes in his public high school) then safe food handling practices were certainly not familiar to him. I quickly gathered some info and tips online — trying to tamp down my worry after reading about the effects of salmonella and E. coli —  and sent them to Mtuseni. He said he’d look at them and do the best he could, but the fridge is too “weak” to keep things cold in the heat (and it’s barely spring there now). I just hope this is one time he fully listens to my advice and acts on it; I’m more aware now of the risks. Perhaps food-related illness is part of the reason why some people in the community “just get sick and die” — some families don’t have any refrigeration.

Some people who hear about my experience with Mtuseni don’t fully grasp the level of stress I carry sometimes. I’ll hear “Oh, my teenager is the same way: never listens.” But their kid doesn’t struggle to sleep in a cinder block hotbox on a summer night, or have no escape from the cold when temps dip into the 30s. They’re not ruining their eyes studying for exams by candle light or tarring their lungs with the smoke from kerosene lanterns. And they’re not going to spend three days weak and vomiting from a plate of leftover pap and stew.

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Source: New York Times

I hate carnival rides. I’ve always said that my life keeps me off balance enough without having to pay for the privilege. So I haven’t been to a theme park in 25 years. Instead, I do things like mentoring a teenager living in abject poverty in a society that often seems determined to drag its feet on the path to progress. Disney and Six Flags ain’t got nothin’ on the hair-raising turns and dizzying drops in this ride.

Take the current loop… Mtuseni told me today that he got a job as a campus assistant at school. This is another high-profile gig that likely was made possible by his good work on the student committee this past year. (And it pays!)

When I went to Boston Media House in January, a group of campus assistants were helping new registrants, and one brought me in for my meeting with the school administrator. Back then I thought to myself, “Mtuseni’s gotta get one of these jobs.” A year later, mission accomplished. He said it’s for January and February, so he “still has to hustle for December,” as he put it. It’s good to see that he’s pressing to get work. Plus, the campus job is another feather in his cap, for his CV and for his LinkedIn profile. And he did this all on his own. I didn’t even know interviews were coming up!

So that’s the easy, breezy, giddy part of the carnival ride this week — but it’s only a flicker of light in what’s been a dark, unsettling tunnel…

Because Nester, Mtuseni’s mom, has been in hospital for a week. She was taken by ambulance from work last Wednesday. All Mtuseni told me is that she feels weak and is vomiting. He doesn’t seem to know much more; he hasn’t been aggressive in talking with the doctors. I think it’s partly a cultural thing, partly his own issues with authority. And fear and mistrust of doctors. Regardless, being in hospital days on end is never good — and it’s really not good in South Africa, where the system doesn’t roll out the red carpet for the poor. It makes me nervous that something’s really wrong. Nester’s had a rough year healthwise since June, and she’s at the age of average mortality for a woman in South Africa — and living near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

I try not to think about worst case scenarios, but it’s in the back of my mind this week. When I told Mtuseni he needs to be more proactive getting information from the doctors so he can plan, he snapped, “Plan what? Ain’t nobody dyin never, not my mom.” I had never mentioned the idea of death — only meant planning child care and finances for the week — but Mtuseni’s response clearly shows that it’s somewhere in his mind too.

A sweet campus ambassador gig.
Mom in hospital for a week, with no answers.
Up. Down. Around and around.

But I’m super proud of Mtuseni today, and how far my boy has come in three years. I’ll keep my mind focused on that for now… and pray for more light and love on this epic ride.

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