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Having graduated with the double Bachelor's degree MB Bch in 1959 after 6 years of study, I was now a brand-new Doctor.
The Medical training program at the time called for 2 more years of practical work under supervision, in a teaching hospital of one's choice before being officially qualified to practice. This was a bit like an Apprenticeship but called an Internship. Ironically we were not called Interns but Housemen or House Surgeons.
It was late afternoon on April 9, 1960. Two of us - my fellow House Surgeon Willy Krom and I - were working in the Trauma Unit. This is a specialised unit that deals purely with injuries, accidents, and assaults of whatever kind. Until that moment all had been peaceful and quiet. The Rand Easter Show was about to start and Johannesburg was in a festive mood.
A scene from the Rand Show
A bizarre call came through that a white male had been admitted to one of the Medical Wards with injuries sustained at the Show. Medical Ward? Injuries? Medical Wards deal with the discipline of Internal Medicine, which is the management of general diseases such as Hypertension, Diabetes, Heart Failure, Diagnostic conundrums etc. NEVER physical Injury. Besides, WE were the Trauma unit.
Our superior, the Registrar, told us we had better go and sort this out. We duly arrived in said ward. As soon as we saw the patient our jaws dropped. There was the Man Himself. The Chief Architect and Conductor of the Apartheid political system – Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd! There had somehow been a monstrous blunder for him to be here. We both thought it appropriate to panic - and panic we did. We immediately got on the phone to all our seniors. We were instructed to get on with stabilizing him and on no account to move him to another ward.
Hendrik Verwoerd (via Wikipedia)
Verwoerd shortly after being hit (Pathe News)
He received us with polite grace - quite a feat considering he had been shot twice - once in the face and again in the right ear. He was in shock (pain and blood loss if severe is followed by a very pale appearance with cold skin and extremities, a fast pulse and falling blood pressure). Resuscitation was urgently needed, requiring high volume IV fluids and monitoring equipment - which the Medical ward did not have! With sharp commands and many expletives to the indignant staff, we got the apparatus and equipment moved in.
Modern Resuscitation equipment has evolved to make this situation a straightforward routine to deal with. The state of the art IV equipment at that time included the diabolical Frankish-Evans needle (now extinct - thank God!). This was a thick, large-bore metal thing that was difficult to use. 'Stabilising' a shocked patient with hypovolemic shock requires at least 2 IV lines. NOT a drip - but a large bore, high-volume flow that can be 'pumped'.
I worked the right and Willy the left. With shaky hands, we began probing his pale podgy arms for suitable veins to use. In the shocked state, the arm veins had 'collapsed' i.e. contracted right down and obscured by pale cold opaque skin. I went for the first vein I could find. A hematoma (an expanding swelling under the skin due to a penetrated but not successfully cannulated vein) immediately formed, requiring pressure and a continued search for another try. Soon there were several very ugly and alarming swellings developing. Glancing across I saw Willy in the same trouble. So far we were making things worse! The PM bravely kept his composure.
Eventually (thank God again!), we got in and had a successful IV entry point to pump fluids through. Thereafter he quickly pinked up and came out of shock. We were then free to start work on assessing his injuries in detail.
At that point, the 'Big Guns' arrived - all the Chiefs and Senior Consultants - Surgeons, ENT, Max Fac, Plastics, the lot. Being relegated to just being a gofer has its advantages. The pressure was now off us. They decided not to do any immediate surgery, but to just keep him stabilised. This surprised Willy and me, both of us expecting prompt operative intervention. Thinking back on this I suspect they already knew what was going to happen next.
Sure enough, a few hours later all Hell broke loose. Helicopters, Army, Navy, Police, stamping boots, shouted orders, salutes, heavy armoured vehicles churning up the lawn, - a truly awesome sight.
Then the Pretoria Medical Chiefs arrived. The exchanges between them and our seniors were polite but cool and condescending.
Prime Minister Verwoerd was then whisked off to Pretoria - much to our relief. After surgery there he made a full recovery in a mere two months.
The talk was that HFV had been rushed through to the Johannesburg General Hospital by the Ambulance men and taken straight to the Admissions Clerk. When asked by the clerk for his name he was told 'He is the Prime Minister of South Africa'. The Clerk replied 'Yes and I am Napoleon' - and promptly admitted him as indigent to a Medical Ward!
Reflecting on this afterwards, Willy and I both agreed that whether that was true or not, the whole affair had been a massive gemors from the outset.
David Beresford Pratt, the shooter, was a qualified Chartered Accountant but was epileptic and delusional. He was placed in custody but declared medically unfit and legally incompetent to stand trial. His death a year later was ruled a suicide. No inquest was held into his death and doubts remain about the circumstances of Pratt's demise as many suicides during those years were later proven to be murders by the police or security forces.
Willy (Wilfred) Krom went on to become a famous Orthopaedic Surgeon.
About the author: Dr Peter Comfort arrived in South Africa from England shorlty after World War II. He matriculated from Marist Brothers College Observatory in 1953 before heading to Wits to study medicine. He spent many years working as a surgeon in the Eastern Cape and built up a thriving surgical practice which is still going today. He is happily married with seven children.