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Education was my Saving Grace: Interview with Author Maria Phalime

8 July 2014

001MariaAfter several years of practising medicine, Soweto-born  Maria Phalime reached a realisation that it was time for her to put her career as a doctor behind her (she quit).

Today, Maria is an acclaimed award-winning author of a non-fiction memoir, Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away, based in Cape Town. She shares her journey with us, painting a picture of her challenging daily life as a doctor and her decision to walk away.


CC&DW: Tell us about your life growing up in Soweto under apartheid. Did you have any life-altering experiences or inspirational people in your life, which inspired you to become a doctor?

Maria: My upbringing was no different to that of other young Black African youths growing up in the townships during those dark days. I came from a working class family and faced many of the challenges that came with being Black and poor. The 70s and 80s were also highly politically charged and many times I couldn’t go to school because of stay-away and protest action. My parents had the discretion to send me to a private school in one of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. Here I got to fulfill my potential and I had the opportunity to dream of a better life for myself.


CC&DW: The majority of people tend to pursue other people’s educational dreams, such as a mother or father, did this happen to you?

Maria: Growing up I knew that I wanted to work with people and make a difference. Initially I wanted to be a teacher, but because I did well academically I was encouraged by teachers and other well-meaning people to pursue medicine. I adopted the dream as my own. My family never placed any pressure on me to be a doctor.


CC&DW: After many years of school and training, when did your career in medicine officially begin?

Maria: I began my medical career in 2000. I went over to the UK to do my internship as my husband was based over there at the time.


CC&DW: What is your most memorable moment from your time as a doctor?

Maria: Shoo, tough question. There were many, both positive and negative. The most memorable positive memory was a Sunday morning I spent in the neonatal unit (nursing care for newborn infants) at Groote Schuur Hospital. It felt as if I had stepped into a tiny corner of paradise.  It was such a life-affirming experience to be around those tiny premature babies in their incubators. The ward nurses provided a loving, supportive environment, and I was left with a strong appreciation for the value of human life. The not-so-pleasant memory isn’t a particular event, more of a feeling. Towards the end of my medical career I felt that I was turning into a person I didn’t want to be. I was irritable, impatient, exhausted and traumatised. I knew I needed to get out.


CC&DW: Your most challenging experience?

Maria: The feeling of helplessness. The HIV epidemic was exploding and our government was in denial about it. It was frustrating to know that treatment was available but we weren’t allowed to use it. I also got to see that people needed more than medicine – they needed jobs, a means of feeding and taking care of their families, proper housing and sanitation, education and purpose. All of these factors impacted their lives to the extent that they then came to the clinic with physical manifestations. But giving them pills was like applying Band-Aids to gaping wounds; it didn’t address the underlying problem. I began to wonder what difference I was really making in that kind of setting.


CC&DW: A doctor’s life as portrayed in the media illustrates how demanding it can be, i.e. receiving emergency calls at the dinner table. Is this the reality?

Maria: It is very demanding, but what you see on TV in no way tells you how truly demanding it is. As a junior doctor I didn’t get to go home for dinner and wait to be called. When I was on call I was based at the hospital, working more-or-less all the time with few breaks. It is the more senior doctors who get to go home. I think there is a growing realisation that the demands placed on doctors – and especially on junior doctors – are detrimental, both to their own well-being as well as to the patients they serve. The time has come for this to change.


CC&DW: What are your views on the South African medical system and policies?

Maria: Our health system is in crisis. This is not news; we see reports on this in the media all the time. Having said that I think there is hope. The quality of medical training in this country is excellent, and we now have a Health Minister who is aware of the challenges and is prepared to tackle them. I think it’s important that we continue to talk about the issues that affect the system, with a view to identifying the points of change.


CC&DW: What improvements do you think could be made to support the medical system, citizens and residents of South Africa?

Maria: The approach needs to be multi-sectoral. It would make little sense to deal with the challenges that affect the health sector while failing to address the issues that bring people to hospitals and clinics in the first place. It is a massive undertaking, and it’s going to take cooperation and collaboration across various ministries and sectors to address the challenges.


PM_highresCC&DW: You wrote a book after leaving your medical career, Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away. What inspired you to write about your experiences in book form?

Maria: Ultimately it was seeing who I was becoming, and I didn’t like that person very much. People always asked why I left the medical practice, and I never had a succinct response for them. I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision, but by writing the book I wanted to interrogate my decision more deeply and to answer the question once and for all.


CC&DW: Please share with us a passage in the book you think sums up your experience best.

Maria: I’ll share two, from the beginning and from the end of the book:

“This is my story and the stories of other doctors who chose to walk away. Ours is a private anguish filled with the niggling suspicion that we should have been stronger, more committed, more able to handle the daily realities of practising medicine in South Africa.”

“It was tough, it was sad, and then I left. That’s all.”


CC&DW: What are you doing now in your career and what do you see for your future?

Maria: I am writing, and have been for nearly four years. In addition to Postmortem, I wrote a youth novel titled Second Chances which won the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award in 2013. I am currently working on a non-fiction project. I realise also that my story is a common story, though it has manifested in an unusual way. Many young people feel lost or stuck in their careers, they are searching for purpose and fulfillment. So I am also increasingly sharing my own journey so as to guide and inspire others who may be facing career challenges.


CC&DW: Postmortem has caused some controversy, and sparked some negative responses/comments. How do you deal with this?

Maria: I don’t allow myself to be rattled by negative feedback, though sometimes this is easier said than done. People are entitled to their views, though I would appreciate their views more if they actually took the trouble to read the book. I know what is true for me; I have made peace with my demons. I also know many people appreciate that I have written this book because it has allowed them to look at their own choices in a different light. Ultimately I’m proud of this book. It is an important story, and one that needed to be told.


CC&DW: Would you say you believe that a worthwhile career is worth suffering for?

Maria: Nothing is worth suffering for. We are meant to thrive. The world needs us at our best. My statement earlier says it best: I was turning into a person I didn’t want to be and I knew I needed to get out.


Writer’s Note: Maria Phalime also studied Management Development through UNISA, and is the author of a new book for teenagers titled Second Chances. Second Chances won the 2013 Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award. Maria is a wife and mother of two.


9780636150676_mlt_hl_g09-11_fal_eng_zaf_cvr.inddThembi is in Grade 11 and she has big dreams of being a doctor one day. But like so many of her peers she faces numerous obstacles which threaten to dash her plans for a better life. Will Thembi succumb to the temptations and pressures around her? What will it take for her to keep her dream alive?

Author’s note: I grew up during the bad old days of apartheid, when prospects for a Black girl from the sprawling township of Soweto were far from promising. Education was my saving grace; it enabled me to see that there was an exciting and diverse world beyond the dusty streets of Soweto. I knew I could create a place for myself in this world if I worked hard enough. I wrote Second Chances for teens, to encourage them to broaden their horizons through reading and to show them that dreams can come true.

Winner of the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Awards 2013.



To contact Maria, visit her website and follow her on social media:





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