I walk into Thabo’s ward carrying a file with his scan results. He has appendicitis.

Nivashnie, one of the nurses, is standing next to the 16-year-old’s bed with her arms crossed, as if she’s hugging herself. Thabo is wearing his full school uniform and clutching his stomach. The boy moans in pain as my eyes lock with Nevashnie’s.

“Dr Mkhize,” Nivashnie says, and quickly pulls me to the side. She lowers her voice so that Thabo doesn’t hear what we are talking about. “What is it?”

“Appendicitis. We need to remove his appendix,” I say. “Where is his mother? We need to schedule the operation as soon as we can.”

“That woman who brought him in was the boy’s teacher, Mrs Ngcobo. She left while you were still doing the tests,” Nivashnie says.

Mrs Ngcobo is one of Thabo’s Grade 10 teachers. Earlier in the day Thabo had arrived at school not looking well. Two hours later he was doubled over at his desk, crying. Thabo kept asking to be taken home. Thabo’s father also asked Mrs Ngcobo to take Thabo home, instead of to the hospital, when she called him.

But Mrs Ngcobo heard the anguish in the boy’s cries and managed to convince Thabo’s dad that it was better to start at the hospital, as a precaution.

“We need to contact his parents before we proceed,” I say to Nivashnie, meanwhile considering going ahead without consent if I need to.

“It’s no use, doctor. Ngcobo says the boy’s father believes the boy is bewitched and a hospital is a waste of time and money.” Nivashnie looks at Thabo and then looks back at me. “I’ve been trying to tell Thabo that witchcraft doesn’t exist and now he doesn’t even want to talk to me.”

“That’s because it exists to him, Nivashnie,” I say. “Get me his father’s number as soon as possible – or this could be fatal.”

“Okay, I’ll call Mrs Ngcobo. But I’m just wondering how you’ll convince the father, if the boy himself is so adamant.”

This is unusual, I think. Nivashnie almost never fails to convince a patient. Whether it’s to take pills, an injection or even have surgery, she always knows what to say. But I think I understand why she can’t convince him.

“Nivashnie, just let the doctor operate,” I say playfully and begin to walk towards Thabo. “Give us a few minutes.”

Nivashnie smiles, shrugs and exits the room.

“Hey, big man,” I say to Thabo.

“Doctor, I’ve been telling Mrs Ngcobo and that nurse but they won’t listen…” Thabo winces. “What’s happening to me is not something you guys understand. I’m being bewitched. Take me home and Dad will take me to a sangoma. I’ll be fine.”

“Well, Mrs Ngcobo and Nivashnie may not understand, but I do.”

“You’re a doctor,” Thabo says.

I chuckle. “You say that like I was born a doctor; like it’s my race or gender.” I grab a chair and sit down. “Is the injection working?”

“Yes; it doesn’t hurt as much.” Thabo pushes himself up on the bed until he’s almost sitting. “But I know it’s going to come back doctor. Please let me go home.”

“I will,” I say, then sigh dramatically. “But I’m really offended that you think because I’m a doctor I don’t understand what’s happening to you.”

“If you did, you would have sent me home by now, doctor.”

“Thabo, you have appendicitis and you need to undergo surgery where we’ll remove your appendix. If that doesn’t happen soon enough, it might rupture, and that’s very dangerous,” I tell him.

But I can see by the look on his face that he’s not taking in what I’m saying.

Thabo opens his mouth to say something and then decides against it. He looks away from me and I suspect he’s about to give me the silent treatment he gave Nivashnie.

I smile. “Let me tell you a story about what happened to me when I was your age, while they go to fetch your father,” I say gently. “A story that might change your mind.”

“You can’t convince me otherwise, doctor,” Thabo shakes his head. “This didn’t just ‘happen’, as you say. We were warned months ago about it, by–”

“I know exactly how these things work. Let me tell you what happened to me.”

And so I launch into my story. I want to help him see that he really needs the op, and keep his mind occupied – even entertained – while we wait for his father.

 ***

Tell us: Are you with Nivashnie ‘it doesn’t exist’ or Thabo ‘I’m being bewitched’ at this point in the story?