Wednesday, July 23, 2014

6 Minutes with Maria Phalime

I know I've been captivated by a book when I get to the end and feel the need to reach out to the author. It means that it has stirred something that I resonate with, or has made me see something differently. I had the desire to do that when I finished Maria Phalime's memoir - Postmortem. Inspired by the title, I decided to do a postmortem of my reading experience - with the author.

Maria Phalime is a qualified medical doctor. Born and raised in Soweto, on paper she is an inspiring success story. Despite growing up in a difficult social and political climate, she eventually joined what many consider to be the most noble profession. What makes her story significant is that she is the doctor who walked away. She stopped practicing medicine - because it just didn't feel right. She is now an award-winning writer.

Having grown up around medical doctors, and having many of them in my life, I wanted to compare and contrast her experiences with theirs. I am possibly one of the biggest critics of medical culture - due to my own exposure to it, so I was curious to see what role that played in her decision to leave the profession.

When I finished the book I realised that the themes go beyond medicine and the state of our healthcare system. I was inspired by her courage and her decision to walk away, because, despite a huge investment, the life she found herself living was not ticking her 'meaning' and 'happiness' boxes.

Maria was fantastic and willingly engaged with me:

Postmortem is a very layered, universal story - it's about decisions, it's about intuition, it's about making choices and it's about living your truth. These things are all very hard to trust and do in our society...

Thank you for getting this! I think the conversation has become about medicine and the health issues, and while these are relevant it is also about following an authentic path.

Why did you decide to study medicine?

I wanted to make a difference, to do good in the world. I was also very bright, driven and ambitious, and medicine seemed like the appropriate avenue to channel my talents.

It takes a lot of time, sacrifice and hard work to become a qualified medical doctor. Do you ever regret studying medicine?

Not at all. Medicine has shaped who I am as a human being; I wouldn’t change that for the world. I think regrets are a cop out. It is much more empowering to take responsibility for the decisions we make and to learn from them.

Do you ever have moments where you wonder what might have happened had you stayed?

I used to wonder, but writing Postmortem has helped to bring closure. Besides, where does it end? I could get stuck wondering what would have happened had I stayed, had I worked elsewhere, had I stayed in the UK, etc. I know in my heart that I made the right decision.

In addition to practicing in SA, Maria also practiced in the UK. We all know to some degree that working as a state doctor in South Africa is a very challenging task, so when I first encountered the book my initial thoughts were that the working conditions must have driven her away from the profession.

Do you think you might have had a very different experience if your entire medical experience had been a first world one?

I don’t know, but I doubt it. Even in the UK I felt that something was missing. The environment in which I worked influenced my decision, but it did not cause it.

Many people fantasise about changing their careers. You did it. What have you identified as the most important elements required for vocational happiness?

When I left medicine I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I was really just stumbling around in the dark. Challenges come when we are unclear, or when we deny our authentic paths. Writing should have been a no-brainer for me; I was always such a bookworm. But I had my mind set on medicine, and even after I left it took years before I got real about what I really love.

Changing your career is never easy, but we can really help ourselves if we get real about who we are and what we love. I think too many people are fixated on labels and status, and not enough on what is authentic.

Maria has since found success as a writer, contributing to various publications, blogging, writing professionally and penning books. Her youth novel Second Chances won a Maskew Miller Longman Award in 2013 and Postmortem won the inaugural City Press Nonfiction Award.

How does it feel to call yourself a professional writer?

It’s taken a long time for me to be okay with the fact that I don’t really belong in a set world. I’m a writer, sure, but I am also still a doctor. I also love to inspire and guide. So what does that make me? A dreamer perhaps? It really doesn’t matter.

In addition to supporting your cathartic postmortem of your medical career, what were you hoping to achieve and give to readers by writing this book?

Inspiration. There are few things worse than thinking you are the only one going through a particular challenge. There is immense power in sharing our stories, and I hope that by sharing mine I can inspire others to do the same, or at least to know that they are not alone. It is also important to me that this book provides a human face to the crisis in our health system and the impact it has on the people who work in it.

After digesting the themes raised in Postmortem I was a little frustrated. A lot of my work has been focused on young people, and encouraging them build better lives for themselves. How do we encourage them to aspire for better lives, if something like studying medicine can’t guarantee their happiness? Maria simplified it for me.

South African learners face very poor career preparation and guidance. What are your words of wisdom for them?

Dream big. Follow your heart. Chart your own course. Always be learning.

The themes raised in this book are so interesting - particularly if you have ever thought about changing your mind, trying something new or walking away from something that no longer serves you.

Postmortem is available at all good online and brick-and-mortar bookstores.
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