Humbling account of a foreigner who is saving South African lives

Review: Vivien Horler

The Boy Who Never Gave Up, by Emmanuel Taban, with Andrew Crofts (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The fourth of six children, Emmanuel Taban born on the floor of a mud hut to a newly divorced woman. They lived in a village in what is now South Sudan, and their prospects were poor.

When Emmanuel was eight he was sent to buy bread, and on the way found the equivalent of $20 on the track leading to the shop. His delighted mother told him God had given him the money, and after that he regularly prayed that God would send more to help his mother feed the family.

Years later he reasoned that “hoping for an unearned windfall in this way was part of accepting that I was unable to earn money for myself… It did not occur to me that there might be another way. Every grown-up I knew was praying for the same thing, with the same lack of success.”

But somehow this small boy rose above the circumstances life had thrown at him. Today he is a successful pulmonologist practising in Centurion, and the pioneer of a risky treatment – according to the World Health Organisation – which has saved the lives of at least 51 Covid-19 patients whose conditions were considered to be terminal.

How Dr Emmanuel Taban went from being an uneducated barefoot boy in war-torn South Sudan to the man he is today is the subject of this remarkable autobiography.

Google him, and one of the first items that comes up is a short Carte Blanche segment on his Covid work. He writes that in June last year a doctor in his 70s, who had been on life support for more than a week, started to deteriorate.

Taban did a bronchoscopy on the patient, a procedure that involves passing a thin imaging tube into the lungs. The patient appeared to have a tumour in his airway, but when Taban tried to grab it with the endoscopic forceps, it stretched. This was no tumour – it was a mucous plug.

At that stage Covid literature said patients did not develop mucous in their lungs, but he saw some clearly did, and that the mucous was blocking the small airways. This is why giving these patients more and more oxygen did not help.

It took Taban and his team two hours to remove all the mucous plugs from the patient’s lungs, and the next day he no longer needed life support.

There is a reluctance to use bronchoscopies in the fight against Covid as there is a significant danger of spreading infection. The WHO discourages the practice because of the danger to medical staff, and the SA Department of Health describes it as a high-risk procedure, advising “extreme caution” when performing it.

But in the right hands Taban has shown it saves lives.

His life story is remarkable. His early childhood was happy, he says, but the war between Sudan and the rebels in the south disrupted his schooling after just five years. He was arrested as a spy at 14 for begging at the airport in Juba, was tortured and sent to Khartoum, and eventually fled, intending to reach an uncle in Nairobi in Kenya for help.

But the uncle turned him away. Drinking a can of Coke, without any idea of what to do, he noticed the “Manufactured in South Africa” note on the label, and decided to head south.

When one considers the difficulties aspirant South African university students have, it’s almost inconceivable that Taban was able to get here, complete his schooling and be admitted to university. But his determination, hard work and innate intelligence paid off. With the stirling help of a Catholic order, the Camboni Missionaries, and a bursary from Jeppe Boys’ High, he was completed his high school education, and was admitted to Medunsa  to study medicine.

Today he is saving South African lives, as well as striving to help people in his own country.

He rails against some Africans’ acceptance of a miserable status quo, saying if people worked to change their circumstances, and to get rid of the self-serving politicians who governed them, Africa could be transformed.

This is the sort of line often made by whites on chat show radio programmes, who seem not to understand their enormous generational advantages. But it is sobering when someone like Taban makes the argument.

He talks of his mother who, he says, had a natural entrepreneurial bent, but never had the education to exploit it. How much of the talent of South Africans – and Africans generally – is being wasted thanks to a myriad factors, including those of politicians across the continent, who are focused on personal power and money.

For someone like me, who had every advantage growing up in South Africa, Taban’s is a humbling story. What an amazing man he is.

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