Lessons from ICU for a country in turmoil

Monique Mathys-Graaff
6 min readJan 24, 2018
Gabriella’s 2nd ICU stay: Hope never fails

I drove into the hospital to visit my daughter in ICU at 2.45am on the 26th September. She had been admitted for the 4th time that year (For more detail read my previous writing: Lessons from ICU for troubled times). Entanged in my head and heart was all the hope I had for my baby and my country. In my mind’s eye, I saw how a lot of what I was doing for my baby as a mother, is what our country needed from her citizens. Maybe you’re feeling hopeless about the future of our country. I hope these 3 lessons from ICU, waters the seeds of hope in you.

# 1 : Complacency is dangerous

Never be complacent about the status quo. We got so familiar with ICU and its intensity. Seeing children with their chests strapped up, tubes out of everywhere. Parents crying. Doctors and nurses rushing past with death stares. Blood transfusions, drips, emergency bells. It was the second week of her third hospital stay in ICU, she was going home the next day we thought and so I decided to skip one of the visits and rather get into the office. On my way, I was left breathless, as I heard the urgency in my husbands voice through my car’s blue tooth speakers. Gabriella’s surgeon called to let him know that she’s going in for an emergency procedure in the next hour to have another drain inserted! I remember the shocked stares of my colleagues as I plainly told them I would need to excuse myself from our Monday morning Meeting as baby’s going back in for surgery. Their stares screamed “what are you doing here!”

To be brutally honest, it was my pride. Or longing for some different status quo. I got too complacent, but thankfully Gabriella’s surgeon remained vigilant.

Waking up to the news of our country being downgraded to Junk status, I wonder if you didn’t felt the same way I did? “I am NOT junk!”. But I was also left with a sobering reality. “Could I have done more?” — Had I gotten so desensitised that I too was like a cell phone user with a cracked screen: you get so familiar with using it with its dysfunction, you learn to read through the lines of the cracks. Was I so complacent to corruption in the news, crime all around, disrespect for fellow citizens, talking and complaining but not doing anything. Looking to others but not doing what I could with what little I had. Caring about others and not just myself and my family.

Last year I was so encouraged by a young friend from Diepsloot, who does not have a cent to her name and grew up in Diepsloot township. When a big NGO after-care facility closed down in her township, she took the initiative to set one up. I was complacent. She acted like a caring mother for those stranded young children and did what she could with what little she had.

# 2 : Advocacy — the greater cost of not speaking up

“Who else will speak for her if we don’t?”

As my husband uttered those words, I stared at our tiny baby so swollen she couldn’t open her eye lids. We were debating the bizarre situation that there’s a clear unspoken rule in ICU that parents should just be grateful for the care and not question the medical staff. My husband and I are just not wired that way, we are both extremely analytical and curious human beings. But if we did continue to ask the questions and we upset the medical staff, would Gabriella inadvertently be prejudiced? We were her advocates. She could not speak for herself. We stood in that gap. No one else could. The greater cost of not speaking up when something looked wrong could have ultimately cost her life.

The majority of our country is very poor — we have one of the highest unemployment rates and the highest desparity between the poor and wealthy globally. Our growing youth, our next generation, bears the brunt of that. Their voices remain silent unless we speak for them. Our country bleeds as the cracks of greed and power struggles takes it toll. Wherever there may be an ear to hear, do you speak against destructive behaviour? Are we too focused on the personal cost of speaking up — loosing face or not being popular? Do we forget the greater cost of not speaking up — a generation we cannot care for? I know, I’m the first to put up my hand and say, “Its not that simple.” Imagine for a moment it was your daughter finding herself on the wrong side of statistics: unemployed and poverty stricken, robbed of any hope for a brighter future. May I put this final question to you:

“Who else will speak for her, if you don’t?”

# 3 : Passionate purpose needs marathon mentality

Complacency is dangerous, advocay is a necessity but small acts with passion are powerful. As a mother, day after day, going into hospital and not being able to contribute to Gabriella’s healing was disempowering. That’s until I realised there are small things I could do. Like a marathon runner just taking each small step.

When baby Gariella was not drinking from the bottle and the doctors were talking about inserting a tube in her stomach, I just had to do something. So I did what I could, I went to shops and bought all sorts of feeding bottles and eventually found a milk feeding spoon bottle. This little spoon bottle device saved her from having a stomach tube inserted but it took a lot of perseverance. A real marathon mentality — 20 different bottles and sippy cups later! Many hours of struggling with a baby that had an oral aversion and didnt want anything in her mouth. Thinking of the long term, that our purpose in this season was to have a child in the long run that could have as normal a quality of life as possible. A child that did not have to eat via a feeding tube, on top of having a heart condition. That meant, trying to negotiate with the stringent ICU matrons for relaxed visiting times so I could try to feed her. Going to countless different shops trying different baby bottles. Speaking to different people about what worked for them. Not getting despondent as sometimes insensitive people described how natural it is for babies to suck. Swallowing my pride, dusting off unintended offensive conversations. Marathon running takes mental discipline as well as physical perseverance and pushing through discomfort.

It didn’t take a special qualification only the will. Her being able to feed and get stronger, I believe was a big contributor to her recovery in the end. Through the mundane and the difficult what kept us going? A clear purpose. Fighting for the life of my child and fighting for a better future for our country.
Honestly, many days my patience and gracefulness failed me. Every day they rotated nurses, and we had to explain all over again to these nurses the same long story about the special formulae and the spoon feeding.

Resisting corruption everyday, when you see it in isolation of what you may be losing, it’s easy to just give in. But when you see it in the context of saving and protecting a country, knowing its about the very existence and future state of the country you love — resisting one offer of a bribe becomes a significant step. Remembering this marathon race is one step at a time. Repeatedly stepping forward. Even if there’s failures, keep moving forward and keep trying.

In ICU, we were often surrounded by a sea of hopelessness. But there was also spots of hope: Baby’s who were recovering well from the brink of death, others who were going home. Amidst our nation in turmoil, I try to be disciplined not to dwell too long on discouraging conversations, but seek out the encouraging silver linings: unsung heroes who do miracles with nothing, orphan children being adopted, reducing HIV rates, leaders of integrity speaking out.


In conclusion, I hope these short simple lessons truly waters the seeds of hope I believe we all have for a great future for our country, South Africa. It’s bizarre but my experience with Gabriella as a mother in ICU has made me believe again for a great future for our country.

Thank you to all the faithful committed civil servants in South Africa, who do the right thing even when it comes at great personal cost. And to all our humble hard working unsung heroes in South Africa like our domestic workers who raise our children and care for our homes. You are the building blocks of a greater future for South Africa.