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January 22, 2019

What became of Hippocratic Oath?

Lawyer Dancun Makelo taking his oath./FILE
Lawyer Dancun Makelo taking his oath./FILE

I grew up at the Nyeri Provincial General Hospital staff quarters, where my mother was a nurse, midwife and nutritionist. I grew familiar with medical personnel of all walks of life — from the subordinate staff, laboratory technicians, nurses and clinical officers to doctors. In fact the hospital’s chief matron at one time believed I would grow up to be part of the medical profession – at the very least a clinical officer!

Living around a hospital setting – running through it at least twice a day on my way to and from primary school – meant that I became very familiar with how hospitals work at a very early age.

I also started accessing the hospital library when I was in my pre-teens. It was situated past the hospital maternity ward, which I had to pass through every time I went to borrow or return a book. Being a ‘child of the hospital’ I was allowed to dash through the ward at any time. I encountered moments I have never forgotten.

I, therefore, grew up with a healthy respect for people in the medical profession. It was always quite clear to me from very early in life that I was not cut out to be a ‘medic’. Not only was I not very good in sciences, but I was also not psychologically cut out to handle human beings in their moment of vulnerability. I am just not soft enough.

In fact watching hospital staff struggle to alleviate human suffering in inadequate working conditions and for little pay led me to believe that medical work was a ‘calling’, just the same way my father ‘had been called’ to be a church minister; or a neighbour nurse’s husband was a policeman.

Then there was this thing doctors called the Hippocratic Oath. I understood it to be an old binding document that had been held sacred by doctors for centuries. It spoke of the need to treat the sick to the best of one’s ability, preserve a patient’s privacy, teach the secrets of medicine to the next generation, etc.

It also explained how medicine was both an art, with warmth, sympathy, and understanding; and a science, with the surgeon’s knife and the chemist’s drug. It spoke of how medics ‘must not play God’ and how they must always remember that they ‘do not treat a fever chart or a cancerous growth but a sick human being whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability’.

Today when I see doctors withholding their services for close to three months, comfortably allowing their fellow human beings to die for want of ‘warmth, sympathy, understanding, a surgeon’s knife or chemist’s drug’, I see people ‘playing God’.

I know for a fact that their demands for better pay, terms of service and working conditions are justified. But when they go back to work what will they do about the lives lost and economies destroyed because a patient could not see a doctor when they needed one? Clearly the ‘Oath of Hippocrates’ does not apply to them!

The doctors are trying to justify their behaviour and demand for more based on their hard-learnt profession. But whereas doctors might have spent more time in school, their calling is actually similar to that of police officers and priests.

A doctor allowing a patient to die because they are on strike is like a policeman allowing you to get murdered by a thug, or a priest refusing to offer you final rites on your deathbed, because they are on strike. It is completely inhuman.

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