Take note, Divan Serfontein, of Eugenie’s scar of honour
I had scoliosis too. The princess's gesture reminds me of how the ex-Bok and his army doctor stooges mishandled me
I’d love to know what Dr Divan Serfontein, the former Springbok scrumhalf who specialised in orthodpaedic medicine, thought of the wedding dress worn by Princess Eugenie on Friday.
Not just Serfontein, but also two of his colleagues from his military days, especially one Dr De Beer. What did they think of the low-cut dress down the back that showed off Princess Eugenie’s scar?
She was 12 when she underwent surgery because of a condition called scoliosis, which is a lateral curvature of the spine. I, like Princess Eugenie, had surgery because of scoliosis; I was 14 when I went under the knife for four-and-a-half hours in 1981, leaving me with a permanent scar.
By the time I graduated from Rhodes University in 1989 I didn’t feel up to the task of compulsory military service for two years. I was self-conscious about taking my shirt off in public.
To be honest, I also had a political motivation for avoiding the military. My late father, a one-time Progressive Federal Party (PFP) election candidate who had been physically attacked by National Party thugs twice during the 1977 polls, had always been adamant that I would never serve the fascist government in any capacity, not even behind a desk.
Obviously I wasn’t going to tell anyone that when I went to Wynberg Military Two hospital in late 1989 to be evaluated by their orthopaedic and psychiatric doctors. My scoliosis had already earned me a G4-K4 military classification, which would have meant I would have done only administrative work, but I wanted the elusive G5 grading to get off entirely. It was a better option than potentially spending six years in prison, the mandatory sentence for anyone refusing to serve in those days. First up were the three orthopods. Dr De Beer was the front man of the trio, who included Dr Serfontein and another thickset doctor who, as far as I remember, didn’t say a word in my presence.
Dr De Beer explained that they were actually civilians. “It’s not as if we’re pro-military,” he said. I had to swallow my sarcasm as I replied: “Gosh, the thought never occurred to me.” The three stooges took me into an examination room where Dr De Beer asked Dr Serfontein to hold my hips tight while he tried to twist my shoulders as much as possible. They were in possession of my x-rays which showed two long metal rods in my back as well as eight fused vertebrae in the thoracic region of my spine. But apparently they needed to see for themselves just how rigid my spine was. Dr Serfontein’s vice-like grip allowed my pelvis no respite while Dr De Beer’s hands twisted my upper body.
It was a manoeuvre my own orthopaedic surgeon had never performed on me and probably for good reason. A pain flashed up my spine – a pain I’ve never experienced before or since – and I physically had to resist the man-handling.
Dr De Beer seemed astonished as he commented in Afrikaans: “Hy is styf!” (“He is stiff!”) What the hell was he expecting? A contortionist?
But that was only part of Dr Beer’s butchery.
Flipping through my file, Dr De Beer was dismissive of my argument for avoiding military service: “I’m no psychiatrist, but the reason you don’t want to go to the army is that you don’t want to take your shirt off?” His top lip curled into a sneer that I wanted to knock off his face. Through the majority of school I was ridiculed for my scoliosis, from the time I went into a Milwaukee brace in Standard One on February 10 1975, when I was seven years old, until long after the post-surgery plaster-of-Paris cast was cut off my body on May 12 1982.
I was taunted with a host of names, the most popular being Framework, although Frankenstein and Quasimodo were not uncommon. The silent stares from strangers almost every time I went out in public felt no less invasive.
The brace left physical scars from the constant chafing, from the corset around my hips to the neck piece designed to push my head heavenward almost like a corkscrew.
The brace also shaped me psychologically – I eventually turned to sport in an attempt to prove myself to my peers at school, and sport became my career. There were mental scars too. When Dr De Beer smirked at me that day, I merely responded: “Like you say, you’re not a psychiatrist.” I had wanted to add that I didn’t think he was much of an orthopaedic surgeon either. I don’t know why I felt I needed to be polite to him – I wish now that I had dressed him down. But perhaps I felt I was strange because I had a neurosis?
As it turned out, I got my G5 rating and never served in the army – yay for scoliosis. A few years later I got more comfortable in my own skin and the old phobias melted away. But those fears were real at one time, as Princess Eugenie recognised when wearing her wedding dress.
“It’s a lovely way to honour the people who looked after me and a way of standing up for young people who also go through this,” Princess Eugenie said.
I hope Dr De Beer took note, as well as Dr Serfontein and the guy whose name I don’t remember. Maybe I wasn’t so weird after all.