Dr Isabel van der Merwe – Class of 1994

At Union High School’s recent Interschools Assembly, Dr. Isabel van der Merwe, the Head Girl of the Class of 1994, delivered a captivating address as this year’s guest speaker.

Having received numerous requests, we take great pleasure in sharing with you the speech Dr. van der Merwe delivered to all those present at this year’s assembly:

Mr Headmaster, Teachers, parents, pupils and Old Boys
1994 was an extraordinary year in the history of our country and even in a 100 years’ time, when none of us are here anymore, it will still be a pivotal moment in our history that changed the lives of millions of South Africans.
But 1994 was also a memorable year for the class of 94 because it was the end of our 12 year journey and the starting point of our adult lives. It is also the reason we are here today – it is 25 years later and our class of 94 looks back fondly and proudly and we are so grateful for the solid foundations we received during our schooling at UHS.
In 1919, 100 years ago, the world was finishing off with the First World War and if you look back at the history books, this period of time was dominated with history defining decisions all around the world. In Graaff-Reinet at that very time, the beginning of a rich history was set in motion that is the binding commonality of our gathering here today.
The founding of UHS was not captured in the annals of world history. In the greater scheme of world events, it was a seemingly insignificant event. Yet, to all of us gathered here, that single event would become a major force and influence on our individual lives. The rich history of UHS was created through a century’s contributions by each and every teacher, pupil and parent who have been associated with this school.
What is it then that defines our history? It comprises of millions of moments in which we acted or reacted in one way or the other. Moments that might seem insignificant at the time, but that reverberates in the future.
I have been working as a doctor in an emergency unit for more than seventeen years. This is a place that can at times be an extremely stressful environment for the doctors and nurses. For patients, it is almost always an intimidating and frightening place where people are often stripped of the carefully
constructed and well-maintained masks that they use to hide their raw humanity. It is often the place where the loose threads of a person’s life come together. In this way, an emergency unit can really been seen as an intensified, compressed version of life.
I have learned a few lessons about life in my career; how we deal with each minute can determine our immediate future and our future for many years to come.
I use the term “Saviour of Rome” for the person who defines the moment; the person that creates the moments of magic.
We are not necessarily going to be called upon to save an entire civilization; even the whole school, or our family. Sometimes we are called upon only to make things better for one person, maybe only for a fleeting moment.
In the ER, we often treat patients who are in pain or who are fearful. We treat them and we move on to the next patient. Our decisions and actions may fade into the outer limits of our memories. It also may be only “white noise” to those who are not involved in the situation. But for that patient and for their families, it is often a defining experience which will linger in their memories for quite some time and that may have a long-term impact on them. We regularly hear about the impact of our actions – good or bad – after we have already moved on from that instance.
It is the same for all of us in school, in our jobs, in our families and even in our daily encounter with random strangers. We are all called upon from time to time to be the “Saviour of Rome”. Our lives are defined by whether we accept the responsibility and if we have the mettle to see it through.
It has become fashionable to claim that “In 10 years’ time nobody is going to ask whether you made that crucial tackle, or whether you gave your everything for your team.”
This is the talk of one not willing to accept the responsibility, challenges and joy of living with purpose! Those of us who believe that a life of purpose comprises of sometimes being the Saviour of Rome, embrace every opportunity to create moments of magic. To do this you have to be and give your very best constantly.
We will sometimes fail, but to give ourselves the best possible chance to succeed, we should hone and reinforce certain skills:
The first is: Nuture your passion. Passion is the fuel that keeps us going, through challenges, through successes and through failures.
When you have passion—when you are passionate about a goal, a dream, a life-altering, or difference-making idea—you will never lack the drive to get it done. You might have setbacks or roadblocks that get in your way, but you will have the energy to keep going, to overcome.
Without passion, even an easy road becomes tiresome. Passion is the reason why we keep going even when we fail at something that is important to us – whether it is a patient that dies under our hands, or when you miss that vital shot at goal, or you forget your words when making a speech. Without passion we cannot experience true joy when we do well.
Secondly, Saviours of Rome build their emotional resilience, by honestly looking at themselves, by trying to understand themselves and by consciously managing their emotions.
In my environment we often deal with total hysterics and drama – not only by patients and families but also other healthcare professionals and colleagues. People can sometimes become totally irrational in stressful situations/others are just irrational irrespective of any situation.
The way that you behave in any situation, is directly linked to your understanding of your emotions and your ability to manage it. Emotionally intelligent people create moments of magic – they stay calm under pressure, they create a stable environment and they are the people who you trust to have your back. Self-control is strength. Calmness is mastery. It is a conscious decision you need to make to instill trust and respect in those around you.
The third skill of the Saviours of Rome, is that they build healthy relationships. I see it so often – dying patients whose family and friends come from all over the country to support them. I also see the bitterness of people reaching the end of their lives with no one interested in their well-being.
We are social beings and good relationships is what makes life worth living. It impacts our physical and psychological health.
It is the foundation of influence, it creates the framework for success and becomes the shelter in times of hardship.
These special bonds are not established overnight. It takes a conscious effort and needs constant reinforcement to mature and grow. Healthy relationships are formed by people who try to create the moments of magic for others.
When all is said and done, our relationships with others is what gives us purpose beyond a selfish existence.
The fourth skill I call “follow the recipe” – this implies “to do what you have to do” all the time without exception. Resuscitation in an Emergency Centre can seem like a chaotic event and for those watching a rather daunting experience. Doctors shouting orders like defibrillate, Adrenaline stat, IV line, shocking on 3, clear mind sound very complicated and impressive – but if you watch carefully you will see it really is just a plain recipe of Airway, Breathing Circulation which all of you know as the ABC’s. This is the only way to do it, no exceptions. If you want to make the moments of magic, you cannot cut corners, you need to always follow the recipe.
In life we are faced with many choices, but if you adhere to the rules of always doing the right thing, doing what you have to do, following the recipe; your moments of magic will be plentiful.
These skills require rigorous discipline and constant conscious evaluation: Train yourself to be the one that makes the moment.
• Where is your passion and are you able to inspire those around you with your energy and determination.
• What does your daily behavior reflect about your emotional resilience? Do you instill trust and respect in your daily encounters with others?
• Are you living a life of purpose built on healthy relations; a life of serviceability to others and “the one that people choose to be around “The good and loyal friend.
• Are you the one that “always does the right thing? The person with a certain level of excellence, never cutting corners, steering the course.
These skills are by no means the total solution for the perfect life. It forms a healthy framework though, to enable us all to live a life of purpose. A life of purpose is a life in which we make every moment count. Moments that are made to count, are the building blocks of history. So, it does matter that you give your everything for your team. It does matter that you support your team mates. It does matter that you be the best Unionite you can be. UHS was made great by a hundred years of people who chose to define the moment.
Let us all be part in the history making of the next century.
Enjoy the interschools and celebrations.
Isabel van der Merwe
082 555 8080