Reflections on Justin Bieber

My daughter’s blog on the trials and tribulations of living with a Belieber.

Jaz Says

Being the sister of a “dedicated” (as she puts it) Belieber, I’ve been shown an insight into the world of Bieber that seems to only be reserved for his fans. I have learned an unprecedented amount about the Biebs and I am up-to-date (via my sister) about all his latest escapades. In light of the recent controversy he has stirred up involving Anne Frank, I feel compelled to make my final deductions on the Belieber community and on Bieber himself. 

At first, Jada’s interest towards Bieber seemed benign. Celebrity crushes are normal for tweens and teens, after all. Little did I know, this love for the star would blow up to hugely underestimated proportions. It seems that Bieber exerts an influence on these impressionable young girls that turns some of them, quite frankly, into malicious, jealousy-ridden gossips. Once you have started to like Justin Bieber, you will be sucked into…

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Journey into Medicine – Asystole

I arrived for my shift in the ER as usual. Sweeping around the corner an open door showed about half-a-dozen doctors and nurses ‘working’ on a patient. One member of staff leg’s straddled his body, he performed CPR and others injected the drugs epinephrine and atropine into his system. Not prepared for this visual image I turned another corner and saw a mother holding her young boy (about 8 I guess), she glared at me, she knew what was happening. The boy had asked questions and wanted to know what was going on. A drunken homeless man offered words of comfort breathing a sweet, rancid smell of stale liquor all over them. She wanted to get out of there.

About 5 minutes later I walked past the room again. This time no-one was there and he lay still upon the bed. My immediate thought was great they did it they saved him and now he’s sleeping. About few seconds later I realized that this was not the case. This was the first dead body I had ever seen. Embarrassed, I walked away not wanting others to know that I had just crossed that threshold and seen someone whose life had ended. It was not time for the boy to see that, so I pulled the door closed.

Several minutes later the EMT asked me if I could give her a hand moving a patient. “Which patient” I said. “The patient in room 64” she replied. I knew that room well, staff referred to it by room number because it was the room where drug-addicts, the homeless and psychiatric patients were held. It has a closed circuit TV screen and a permanently had a strange smell. I never liked cleaning that room as you had to be extra careful of stuff of the floor, bits lying around or patients in handcuffs.

The patient in 64 was the patient I had just seen. She wanted me to help take the body board from under his back, she couldn’t lift him alone. “I guess,” I said. “Put your gloves on”, she reminded me.

My first instinct being so close and actually touching him was how perfectly normal it all seemed. He lay still, serene, freed of his difficult life. He was only one year older than me, a homeless man with blond hair, matted in several places. Catheters had been inserted into his hip; the tubes were still attached to him. His fingernails jammed with dirt and his hands brushed with a thick impenetrable coating of dried on dirt. He had probably not washed in weeks. I wondered how he lived his life, what drove him to live a life on the streets. But I knew nothing about him, perhaps he was happy. I honestly kept expecting him to wake up and say “what’s going on”?

“What happened to him?”, I asked. “Probably just hard-living” the tech told me. I picked up the chart and saw that he had arrived in ‘Asystole’ and he had been found on a sidewalk somewhere. They had done what they could but there wasn’t much else they could have done. So young and alone, his family doesn’t even know where he is I thought. Someone, somewhere, I HOPE, will contact them and let them know that their son is dead. Not from murder or violence, just that his heart stopped. I since learned that he had no illegal drugs in his system, just probably one of those random events that happens at times.

Lifting his body was heavier than I thought. We pulled the body board from beneath him and then zipped him up in the body bag. This was totally strange to me; I found out that patients in a very serious condition when they come in have a body bag automatically placed beneath their bedding. So efficient and practical.The body bag was very much like bedding, white and would be very difficult to detect. My mind was RACING, I just zipped someone up in a body bag.

“Can you help me take him to the morgue?” she asked. M.O.R.G.U.E., the words flashed across my mind. Yes, the morgue which I had wondered about in the past. “I guess”, I replied.

We wheeled him quickly through the ER. It felt like a strange TV show. People quickly moved to the side and I heard someone say “Oh My God”. We showed no emotion as we passed by, I did not look in their faces, I felt oddly embarrassed by it all. The smell of death was already penetrating my nostrils. It was a smell that brought a flurry of memories as I remembered the huge buckets in school that contained animal parts soaked in formaldehyde (don’t ask that’s a longer story, I grew up in the country where agricultural biology was taught to us all). That smell, although unpleasant, took me back 15 years.

We pressed the button of the elevator that only serves the ICU, ER and surgery. The elevator in which the deceased are carried to the morgue. The elevator in which the smell of death was ten times more pungent. The elevator in which I only wished to spend seconds, not minutes, in. The elevator in which I held my breath. It was so small that we could not move the gurney around properly. When we had to pull him out, he got bumped and jostled many times. I still kept expecting him to get up and say “what the hell are you doing?”

It was now that it took a humorous turn. I know NOT funny, just black, tragic comedy. We had to pull him off the gurney and on to the thin, silver morgue cart. He was NOT a large man, actually quite thin, but tall. It was night and the pathology workers were not there. We assessed the situation, applied the brakes and discussed how to best move him from one bed to another. “Should I pull or push?” I asked. “Should I move his legs or his head?” Somehow between the two of us we got him half-way onto the morgue cart. We had to leave the door propped so that it would not lock us in. The prop didn’t work so I had to stretch out my leg and balance as I pulled him over. I envisioned him falling on the floor and what we would do then. Call a team of people to help, trying and lift him ourselves, who knows, it was too awful for me to imagine. We didn’t want to ‘hurt’ him. He was still very much a patient that we treated with the same respect as if he were alive. I thought of his family and we took him on the next part of his life’s journey.

Inside the morgue were five other bodies, it was chilly, dark and smelly. Still it looked EXACTLY like the refrigerators that we had in the supermarket I once worked. There was an odd familiarity about it.

I was glad to leave and was handed his possessions to take to the nursing office. All he had was a social security card and two dollars in change. I saw his name. I was certain that I would always remember that name forever. Strangely I do not recall it at all. I am sure that my mind has blanked it out. Still I will never forget him. I said a prayer as I left him there, I wanted his family to know that he got good care in the final moments of his life. I sealed his items in a biohazard bag and took the Coroner’s paperwork to the office.

We took the bed upstairs wiped it down with germicidal wipes. A few moments later another patient arrived to take his place, oblivious to the life that had passed.

** These are based on events, but genders, details and so on have been changed to protect identities. When appropriate consent was obtained.

Journey into Medicine – White Doves and Screw Top Jars

During our training for the labour and delivery department we were never told about the white doves. I happened to read about the doves one night from a staff training book. I encountered my first dove one evening as I arrived for my shift.

The staff were unusually sombre, one nurse had been crying, it had been a long difficult day. A new nurse arrived to take over the shift. The nurses’ station was oddly quiet. I then saw the white dove on a patient’s door. This was her first child and she had come in at 28 weeks with signs of preterm labour. Every effort they had made to stop the delivery failed. I am not sure exactly what happened but in the final stages of labour the baby’s heart rate had dropped and she was born with no signs of life.

I was asked to pack up the baby’s wristband, footprints, birth card and other personal items. The mum had asked for them to be destroyed, but the nurses had stored them for her, in case she would change her mind. She never did, it was too painful.

I understand that the doves represent death, and letting the baby ‘go free’ to rest in peace. There was peace in the room, but a kind of empty, void in which nothing can fill. The mum looked grey, she did not speak, and she did not move as we moved her to the postpartum room where she would sleep hearing the cries of other living babies that night. Her husband spoke cheerily to me as I wheeled her over, he was asking questions like “where do you come from?” and so on like nothing had happened.

I was angry with him, I didn’t want to answer but this was his way of dealing with it. A kind of denial. He walked with a bounce and I couldn’t understand why. I wanted to respect her loss, her sense of solitude, emptiness and despair, filling the void with idle chitter-chatter seemed wrong.

I saw him leave 15 minutes later to go home. He couldn’t get out fast enough, I imagine that he needed to leave and mourn in privacy. I felt for the woman alone in that room with no-one there. I wanted to go in and be with her, but I’m not trained or placed to do so. I still wonder what she felt those first moments of being completely alone. That night I cried on the way home. I thought of that baby and the short life it had led.

Barely a week later I arrived for another shift. A woman 18 weeks pregnant had had a missed miscarriage. I didn’t know about her loss and she had no white dove on her door. I walked into the room and again noticed the silence and sadness that filled the air. I chose not to be with her as she had a D&C. It seemed bizarre that she had no white dove on her door, her baby had also died and she too was feeling the same loss.

A couple hours later I was given a screw-top jar to take to the lab. It was marked ‘products of conception’. I knew what I was carrying. I carried it in the elevator as others came in laughing and joking about other worlds. I looked inside the blood filled container and saw the foetal sac and looked away. I was carrying this to pathology. I’m not very religious but I said a prayer as I carried this ‘child’ to its final destination. To these parents this baby was their beloved child no matter how many weeks old it was. I carried the jar with the same love and respect I would have carried my child. Still they wouldn’t know that, but at least they know that someone cared.

** These are based on events, but genders, details and so on have been changed to protect identities. When appropriate, consent was obtained.

Journey into Medicine – Facing Fears

At 29, I feared turning 30. I was not ready. “T-h-i-r-t-y”, it sounded so old. And so as the last night of being 29 crept into my beginning of my fourth decade I had faced my first fear. Now, I see that the thirties are nothing at all, they are and will be GREAT. I realize now that I have the confidence and selflessness to face my fears, large and small, those things that prevent you from truly enjoying life. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Facing fears will be an integral part of my journey to become a physician. Last night, I confronted a major ‘fear’. I witnessed my first surgery, a c-section to be precise.

I arrived for my first shift in labour and delivery feeling very tired, a little shy, and rather nervous. I knew that I would soon be witnessing a multitude of contrasting situations, birth and death, joy and pain. Walking down the hallway it all seemed rather quiet. A couple was milling around the halls, a tired looking dad-to-be and a large bellied woman wearing a pale pink “mommy-looking” robe over her pale blue hospital gown. She paced and paused, rocked her hips, groaned and walked on. I smelled the delicious, rich aroma of Indian food, and saw a grandmother leave the room of her daughter, pregnant with twins in preterm labour.

I arrived at the nurse’s station. “Hi, I’m Sandra!”. No response. The nurses were changing shifts, a lot was going on and they were much too busy to talk to me. The phone rang and I answered it, pleased for the busy distraction.

There was a caesarian section scheduled on the board. “Argghhh”, I thought, “do I want to see this or not?” I thought of ways to avoid it, running an errand, taking a break, anything, something where I could return carefree and announce “what c-section?” after it was all over!! “The doctor’s running late, it’s going to be moved back two more hours”, announced the nurse. GREAT, I’ll be gone, I’m not ready this shift I think, perhaps the next one.

Several minutes later, the phone rang and the nurse answered. A few brief words were spoken and suddenly everything sprang into action. The lady in “room 3c is going in right now for a c-section”. Another nurse turned to me and excitedly announced that I must get into the right clothes and join them immediately. GULP. No time to prepare, I went into auto-pilot, I was already wearing scrubs, so I just needed to wash my hands, put on those blue boot things over my shoes, and get a hat, gloves and a mask. This was my first time putting on some of these items, without help, I put on the wrong surgical hat (which someone swiped off my head and gave me the right one), and broke one of the shoe coverings. Had I tied my mask correctly, was it the right way? With all this seriousness happening I felt like a fool asking such questions. So I just I copied how everyone else wore them. As I wore my mask for a few minutes, I thought this smells rather unpleasant, how do they stand this all day? After a few moments I realized that rancid, putrid smell was MINE, it was my breath. Phew, I wished I had those breath strips or some gum. Next time, this will be on my list of essential surgical items!!

I helped push the bed into the operating room. I had crossed that thick, blood red line on the floor that meant “DO NOT CROSS WITHOUT PROPER SURGICAL ATTIRE”. I had crossed into a new world for me.

“Get some warm blankets, please”, the nurse asked, “and don’t run”. I paused on this instruction and realized that perhaps in such a charged situation “newbies” like me probably run unnecessarily. I got the blankets from the refrigerator-like appliance and walked slowly back to the operating room. By the time I had returned there were several people busying around the room. The floor was stained ochre, I wondered what bodily fluid that could possibly be? “Ha, it’s betadine solution”, I thought as I watched the nurse swoosh and slosh over her tight, stretched pregnant belly. The lights were bright, and all manner of surgical attire was being fashioned; visors, quadruple glove layers, and huge long blue gowns.

Smelling my fragrant breath again I asked, “where would the best place for me to stand?”. The surgical tech moved some trash bins, some with red bags, some with clear and instructed me to stand “over there”! “What not behind the blue drape with mom and dad”, I thought, “this is RIGHT THERE, I’m going to have to LOOK.” I stood about 3 feet away from her, her stomach was in my central view, I would not be able to look away.

Using the wall for support, in case I was to faint, I prepared for the unknown. The exit was across the other side of the room, I would have to walk by everyone should I need to leave. The anesthesiologist made the necessary dosage adjustments and, finally, the surgeon pinched her stomach to make sure she was unaware of any pain.

The scalpel crossed below her belly like an exquisite ink pen leaving a fine red trail of blood. Like drawing on clean white paper with a bold red marker, it created that same sense of visual satisfaction. It was oddly beautiful to watch. The initial incision was quick, precise and OVER. I’d watched it. The tech passed another instrument attached to a cable, it burned through a deeper, whiter ‘bobbly’ layer. There was nothing enjoyable about this. I realized that if there was a moment to vomit or faint this would be it. I looked to the side, absorbed what I had just seen and looked back again, this time, fascinated. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. Some more precise slicing through various layers occurred, I watched some clamp devices pull the skin back. There was much less blood than I thought. It was really just as I had watched on the TV. About 6 minutes had passed and they had reached the uterus. “%%%% me, there’s a baby in there” I thought, it’s coming out, I’m going to see its first breaths. I watched them cut through her uterus, tease out an edge of her water bag and snip it. Brownish fluid seeped out rapidly. The obstetrician’s hand reached in, twisted, maneuvered, pulled, and within moments a larger than expected baby was pulled out. And there she was, a new life, she had entered a new world. She paused, and then she made a small, shrill, yet scratchy cry, and was placed on the waiting bed.

My eyes turned back to the table. I saw the placenta being placed in a large container, cord blood being drawn and a large football sized ‘body part’ resting on her belly. It was her uterus being sewn back up. Long story short, I was absorbed by the entire experience. I never felt sick, faint or anything. I can’t wait to experience this privilege again. I am totally relieved.

I have, at the moment, two things left on my ‘fear list’, learning to drive a gear stick car and seeing/dissecting a dead body.

(I have since dissected a body, taken manual driving lessons even though my license is manual).

 

** These are based on events, but genders, details and so on have been changed to protect identities. When appropriate, consent was obtained.

Journey into Medicine – Tubes

As I walked into the patient’s room I became overwhelmed with the number of tubes, pumps and equipment attached to and coming from his body. I wasn’t sure whether to cry or faint. How on earth did science invent this all? How can we understand the body so well to make this all work? I wondered how many nurses, doctors, hours and minutes it took to attach them all. Every orifice was used, skin pulled and punctured and new holes were made. There were sounds and smells. A sucking noise, a pumping sound, and a loud bubbling as fluid drained from his chest into two huge vessels. There was little space in the room to move, each tube was attached to some complex piece of machinery laid on the floor or on carts, every available space in the room.

In intensive care his body was no longer working for him, he was simply one step in this complex tangle of machinery and equipment. My husband and I used to wonder why there was an ad saying “plastics make it possible”, now I understood, these tubes were keeping him alive. As we moved his heavy body, he was completely unaware of us being there. Where was his mind when his body was so obviously taken over? He was only 48 years old. As I turned to leave I was shocked by an equally moving site, dozens of colourful pictures, cards and letters from family members and work friends. “Get well soon”, “You can do it” they all said. There were pictures of him on trips with friends, at work, hugging and kissing, laughing, water-skiing and smiling. The image of his life as it should be was deeply upsetting to me and the nurse in the room. I wanted to cry again. I was glad to leave the room.

As I walked past the waiting room, it was filled with about 8 of his family members. They had been there all day; they’d made the room theirs with knitting, snacks and magazines all over. I wanted to know what operation he had, I found out from the nurse that he has just gotten sick, with what I don’t know. This again made it harder to handle, how could you get so sick to need all that equipment, surgery would have been a nice explanation for the severity of his situation. Still, he was apparently expected to make a full recovery, which seemed like a miracle.

** These are based on events, but genders, details and so on have been changed to protect identities. When appropriate, consent was obtained.

Journey into Medicine – Roses

She was quietly in pain. Silent as she moved her body to the bed, grimacing with tears in her eyes. I helped her up. I looked at her unsure what to say. She reminded me of my mother. With silvery grey hair, she has bought a black knitted hat and blanket from home. We took a series of 6 or 7 hip x-rays. She moved her body the way the tech asked. She was so eager to please. She could barely hold back her tears.

I wheeled her to wait for the hospital porter. Finally, she could no longer hold it in. “Not everyone can do this job”, she said, “I want to thank you for what you did in there. Thank you”. I hadn’t really done anything. The tears began flowing. She had been in and out of the hospital with cancer for the past 18 months. She looked at me, looking for my understanding and said “I do not want to live any longer, I do not want to live with this pain. I just want to be able to say when enough is enough”. I saw her pain and wanted to help her. We talked for a while, I patted her shoulder. She seemed relieved; she just wanted to talk to someone. She just wanted to tell someone she couldn’t stand it anymore. I felt privileged that she told me, she shared her most intimate desire. She was not suicidal or hysterical, she was rational and clear.

I asked her how long she had been in the hospital for,  ‘just three days this time’ she said. She wanted to go home. Her daughter lived one and half hours drive away and would not be here this weekend. We talked about the house she has lived in for 40 years, her garden, and her love of where she lived. I took her up to her room and she was grateful. Climbing back to her bed, she looked happier, no longer alone in her moment of darkness. I do not know what happened to her. I think of her in her garden, enjoying the warm sun, the sweet scent of Jasmine, and pruning her white roses. This is where I hope she is now, and for the rest of her days.

Journey into Medicine – Changing Pace

We joked and giggled heartily at the expense of another colleague. I was warm and tight cheeked with laughter. I hadn’t laughed like that in weeks.

Moments later I sat next to a woman 8 weeks pregnant fearing the death of her tiny embryo. I sat silent waiting for her exam to end; I would then take her back to her room. I watched the ultrasound image, a blob move around the screen in scratchy black and white. She told us of her two terminations when she was young. She felt a need to apologize. She had no need to apologize to me. She wanted this baby to live. She’d been sent in by her doctor for fainting and bleeding. I waited as the technician completed his exam. Then he found a heartbeat, she was overjoyed but cautious. I was in awe that a life so small could have a visible heartbeat. I was relieved. It truly is a privilege to witness the most intimate, intense and private moments of strangers. How could I have been laughing so heartily a moment ago and then sit next to this mother-to-be and witness her despair and hope unfold before my very eyes.

** These are based on events, but genders, details and so on have been changed to protect identities. When appropriate, consent was obtained.

Journey into Medicine – Snapshots

Polo-shirt, pants, white tennis shoes, hair tied back and off I go. I haven’t been in a ‘uniform’ in 12 years, last time was working at a supermarket stacking freezers. Feels strange. I kiss my kids and husband goodbye and leave the house ready for the next phase in my life. Scared. Excited. Standing on the edge of something I do not know.

In the four years since I decided to become a doctor (I know why not sooner) this is the first time I have entered a clinical setting as a ‘professional’ and not a patient. It is absolutely essential to experience this for me to finalize my decision. I am embarking on a one year (or more) journey into medicine, volunteering at a local teaching hospital.

Tonight I am to spend much of my time in the emergency room developing x rays. (This is 2002 and we are still developing films.)

I arrive one minute late at 7.01pm, no sign-in sheets available, I know we absolutely have to sign in, what should I do? I’m off to a bad start! I introduce myself to the techs, I feel like I’m 14 years old.

One guy races through the procedures, showing me the ropes.

“Put the x-ray here, make sure the bell rings, don’t open the door, replace film in the cassette, 11 by 14, 11 by 12, 8 ½ by 10, extremities here, here is duplicating film, this goes here. This is the flasher, put the sticker in here, check it”. And it goes on.

I listen intently. I am truly in a new world. It’s so second nature to him, yet alien to me. Barely one hour ago I was picking up rice off the floor, putting toys away and negotiating dinner with my three and one year olds.

No time to think we’re off to our first patient. A repeat chest X-ray on an elderly lady in ER. I wonder who she is, why is she alone? Is this how we will all end up? Alone in a hospital, weak and in pain. I truly appreciate the responsibility of our tasks as ‘caregivers’ in this woman’s life.

Then it’s on to the next patient, the next and the next. Two young adult men with constipation, another young male with a nail gun injury. Then a lull. Then off we go again, two more women in their 80s or 90s both with fractured hips. A young 11 year old boy with his mom, scared, sick and confused. I see the look in the mom’s face, “what’s wrong with him, how long till we know?” she asks

It is only then I am surprised by how little I know of each patient I have just spent brief moments in time with. Seeing her reminded me of who I am and why I decided to go into medicine. Only then I realized how motherhood affected my ability to communicate with this woman. Up until that point I was so busy, helping and learning that I had forgotten I too was a mom. I could tell what she was thinking by the worry in her face. I could tell how her son felt during the x-ray as mom waited outside. I wanted her to know that I was a mom and could understand what she was going through. I didn’t tell her.

We went upstairs to another floor. Another x-ray. We woke a woman with our bright lights and big machinery. This is where she may spend the last days of her life, being poked and moved, loud TV sitcoms blaring and hospital food. I remembered when I was in hospital having my girls, being woken up at all hours, blood pressure, this, that and the other.

I was surprised how many came into the ER alone. A 90 year old woman brought in by paramedics, her clothes stained with faeces, urine, a mint green dressing gown, tattered brown shoes, thin and all alone with no one to care for her. “My leg hurts, oh my leg hurts. What’s wrong? I’m cold.”

I can understand what they are feeling as patients. Barely 10 days earlier I had a chest x-ray, my underwear exposed by the open gown, not sure how to stand, am I straight enough, should I breathe now. Am I doing this right?

Now I am told that this empathy for patients can be erased from your psyche as you progress through training. In fact I was surprised how I quickly saw the patient as an acute abdominal x-ray series or whatever the term for their x-ray was. I saw these people for around 10 minutes or so. As the x-ray blinked taking a snapshot of their injury, I too was seeing only snapshots of their lives. Yet, there I was seeing right through their hearts and bodies and trying to understand their minds.

And so it began. By the end of the evening I’d developed several x-ray films, changed sheets, undressed a patient, talked with patients and families, made them feel at ease, seen bloods, guts and not that much gore. My shift over I left and the CD came on in my car…

“From the day we arrive on this planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There is more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done”

** These are based on events, but genders, details and so on have been changed to protect identities. When appropriate, consent was obtained.

Journey into Medicine

I decided on a medical career back in 1998. It took a long time to get there. I graduated medical school in 2010. Kids and life meant that the journey was, and still is, long and meandering. I’m putting up some of my earliest blogs about my journey. Many of these posts are 10 years old, when I volunteered in a US hospital doing obstetric, radiology and emergency rotations. There I first saw death, operations and experienced the world of medicine. I was addicted and knew it was the career for me. Even after all these years I still have the same feelings described in my early observations.

I will begin those with the title Journey into Medicine. No patients or places are at all identifiable, things have been changed to protect the identity of anyone involved.

Country Bumpkin

I wrote about my life growing up as a mixed race girl in the country. It was published by Penguin in 2009 in the decibel prize winning anthology entitled The Map of Me.

The market is in full-swing. Women’s voices buzz over the market noise. The smell of fresh bananas, salty fish and sweet tropical produce infuses the air. The colours dizzy my mind with extreme vibrancy and beauty. I clasp the hand of my aunt and am being pulled through throngs of people. Legs, fat and thin, obscure my view. We’re there to buy; a quick stop before going home. The ground beneath my feet is muddy and wet, my flip-flops stick as I walk, slapping loudly on the soles of my feet as they are suctioned from the ground. For a moment, the world around me pauses; I turn and see my flip-flop disappear in a muddy puddle, lost behind busy folk with baskets of wares piled high above their heads. I am small in their tall and hectic world. I begin to cry.

This remains my earliest and only memory of a life I left behind. Leaving Ghana, aged three, I began my life in England with my mother, father and baby brother. From the markets of Accra we moved to the fields of Somerset. Aged 13, on a trip to Notting Hill Carnival, I was served sugar cane for what I thought was the first time; I was shocked to find the sensation and flavour immediately familiar. My memory had failed, but my senses had retained the sweet, perfumed flavour of the chewy and refreshing cane I had eaten as a child in a country I could barely remember. This defining moment shocked me. My past was always there, buried deep within the person I had become. For reasons complex and despite my Ghanaian heritage, I have never been back.

wheelbarrow

My mother grew up in the Somerset, she’d gone to boarding school and then onto Cambridge to study biology and zoology. As a child, she’d drawn images of Africa and had longed to go. After university, she enrolled in the Voluntary Services Organisation and arrived in Ghana in the mid-sixties. There, she met my father a taxi-driver and sometime, actor. They married and in 1970, I was born. I arrived in the world four weeks early, a small 4 lbs, 12 oz. Yet, strong and requiring no special care. My jaundice was treated by laying me on a straw mat in our sunny garden, surrounded by shrubs laden with papayas and guavas. The story was that I was delivered by the son of Ghana’s leader of independence, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. This was my personal connection Africa’s independence from colonial rule. Two years later my first brother was born.

During her time in Ghana, my mother learned to cook Ghanaian food, make cornrow braids and fully immersed herself in the culture. She sewed us exquisite clothes of local cloth and wore traditional Ghanaian headdresses. A world away from the vicar’s daughter from rural Somerset. My father’s family welcomed her with open arms and, like many others, our family was bound by the strong ties of the extended family. My mother worked as a teacher and I was raised by Aunts and my dear grandmother, Maggie.  Soon, it was decided that we were to leave Accra, for a life in England.

In 1973, I arrived in Britain from the depths of deepest darkest Ghana (as the Somerset locals believed). My new country imagined I’d lived in mud-huts, walked naked, ran with elephants in the wild and spoken in Swahili (the only African language many could name). Our arrival in the village caused quite a stir. The local vicar’s prodigal daughter had returned bringing her new, rather unusual family with her. For some, my white mother was a source of disdain, a ‘tut-tut’ in the village, with her wild black kids and tall dark afro husband with brightly coloured tie-dye clothes and loud drumming music. Helpful villagers descended upon us bringing gifts of second-hand clothes, used tea pots, plates and appliances. We were the latest show in town and, for many, the first black people they had ever seen. From that day, I always knew that I was different and always felt that I stood out. With my out-of-control wiry hair and my dry, brown, yet ashen, skin, I longed to fit in. My mother was the most beautiful person I had seen, with her pale and delicate face, slim body and long flowing brown hair. My father, too, I believed was the most handsome man in the world. He was tall, proud, stylish and very, very black. They were the epitome of the 1970s ‘right-on’ couple, artistic, intelligent and traveled; with verve for life and a defiance of the ordinary. There I was, their child and to which world was I supposed to belong?

It was something that I gave little thought to playing in the fields, finding fragments of roman pottery in newly ploughed ground or plucking daisies from the grass. I loved the country, our glistening stream floating with miniscule mill-weed, the crooked wooden bridge crossing into the fields full of poppies and tall grass.  I loved visiting my grandparents, hiding behind rhubarb leaves with Grandpa, planting flowers in the garden and stealing sweet juicy raspberries from his netted bushes. My father worried what would happen to us when dropping us off at the village school. As it turned out that I was protected by a group of kids, they looked after me and I made my first friend. We played games in the school; I went to her house for tea and marveled at her ponies. My brother and I were like any other local children and we adapted to our new life with ease. Life was good. Until, those moments when someone reminds you that you a nigger and you are different from the others.

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By 1975, my second brother was born and we moved to Glastonbury. As I grew older, I become more aware of my dark skin. I always thought that the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” was absurd. Try telling a child that, nigger, darkie, Paki, chinky, blackie, sambo, chocolate, golliwog, jungle-bunny, are not hurtful.  Try explaining to ‘polite’ people who call you ‘coloured’ in an apologetic whisper that this is not the right term. Try telling your school friends that chanting the infamous Jim Davidson saying, ‘OOOOOOOKKAAAAAAAAAAY’, in a fake Jamaican lilt doesn’t make you fit in or make you laugh.  As a child our Ghanaian names were a source of deep childhood embarrassment, the class would erupt into fits of giggles as my middle name was called while I crumbled inside. Why, oh why, couldn’t my parents have given me a ‘normal’ name I used to plea? Today my brothers and I have continued the tradition of naming our children with their Ghanaian names; we hope that they are one day proud to say Yaa, Adwoa or Akua as a tribute to their ancestral heritage.

By now, my life in Ghana was a forgotten past. We were British. We joined in the street parties in celebration of the Queen’s silver Jubilee and the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles. We made our own Union Jack’s at school and I coloured them in with care and pride for patriotic display. These events were marred by our racist neighbours. My romanticised country idyll was also a place of great hurt and fear. We were told to ‘go home’ and get back to Africa. My brother was thrown in a bunch of stinging nettles wearing only his shorts. I watched helpless as the big boys dragged him away and laughed at him silently holding back tears of pain and humiliation. I froze in fear when their Alsatian dog was let loose at me, biting my knee and shredding my favourite party jeans.  On our city visits, we were sources of amusement for our black urban acquaintances. Our hair was untamed, as there were no afro hair care products in rural Somerset. Our accents were misplaced, a blend of Queen’s English with a Somerset Twang. Wearing the most fashionable clothes we could find from our country High Street we ventured to the city. We were country-bumpkins in an alien world. We were neither here nor there. I had no idea of beauty, I felt ugly in the country with my wide African nose, dry bushy hair and dark skin. I felt ugly in the city surrounded by beautiful black women with glistening perms or straight, glossy hair. Growing up, we always remained a few of only a handful of black faces in our towns. Several years later my father moved to the city, my mother remarried a white man and my third brother was born. Then some assumed us three black children had been adopted by a kindly white family. But as a mixed heritage family we siblings bonded as any family did, never once seeing our half-brother as only ‘half’ of us, we were all the same. Us three older children never had boyfriends or girlfriends until our late teens. Who would dare to date the only black faces in town? My father had told me to remember that ‘success is the best revenge’. From those days, I became driven and determined. Our childhood remained one of intriguing dichotomies. Innocence and experience; joy and pain; black and white; rural and urban; and, African and British. Yet, out of these contrary states, and identity was forged and a unique personal growth began.

As soon as I was old enough, I left the countryside for a life in the city. I sought out the biggest city I could find. Spending several years in Los Angeles, I found anonymity in a city where many others seek to be noticed. There, I could find my afro hair products, not get followed around in shops and find the diversity I so desired. My friends were white, black, Indian, Korean, Hawaiian, Japanese, Irish and Mexican. There, ironically, I met my white British husband. But, I was always home-sick for Britain. We wanted our children grow up in Britain so we returned; duplicating the scenario my mother had done 30 years prior. This time though, we have returned to a city where my children are one of many ethnic faces in their school.

I now look back on growing up, playing in the fields, living lives of simplicity and joy, as only blemished by experiences of isolation and times of trouble. My story probably isn’t all that different to the other ethnic minorities who grew up in rural Britain.  It affects who we are today, how we grew and what we became.  It is only now in my late-thirties that I understand how my identity is defined. I have my core identities and a mish-mash of identities that change over time. I thrive on this variety and I long for this diversity of character. I am a mother.  I am a British-African (or African-American depending where I live). I am black. I am mixed-heritage. I am a medical student. I am any one of a million things, all of which make me.