The Faculty of Health Sciences held a memorial for Dr Trudy Thomas, an accomplished graduate of the MMed (Public Health), UCT. Trudy died peacefully at home, surrounded by her family, at age 82 following a stroke.
Dr Trudy Thomas was a medical doctor who was deeply committed to the health of people in the Eastern Cape. She started her career as a rural doctor in Keiskammahoek and many years later she became the first MEC for Health in the Eastern Cape following the democratic elections.
The memorial was attended by a wide range of people who knew Trudy from the many roles and activities that she took on. There were flashes of mutual excitement when, people sitting across the room, recognised each other, having met through Trudy, and later renewed friendships over snacks.
Professor Margaret Hoffman, spoke about her close friendship with Trudy over many years and her visits to Trudy in the Eastern Cape having heard about her pioneering and novel community health programmes. Trudy’s community programme involving community health workers providing outreach, and heavy emphasis on childhood immunisation and support for bothers, was in many ways a programme that pre-empted the WHO’s adoption of the Primary Health Care approach. It was so successful that it resulted in the eradication of measles and improvement of childhood nutrition and gastroenteritis in the area. George Ellis, who, with Mary Roberts and others, formed “Friends of the Ciskei” spoke if his work with Trudy. Friends of the Ciskei raised funds and worked with Trudy to set up creches and nutritional programmes for children and employment programmes for unemployed women.
It was in those years, that Trudy met Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele. Steve Biko was banned at the time and he and Ramphele were setting up Zanempilo, a clinic and various community projects near King Williams' Town. In her book, Trudy describes “For me, meeting and working with Steve was one of the greatest privileges of my lucky life.”
Messages came from many of Trudy’s former colleagues and friends in the Eastern Cape including David Power, Mark Blecher, Peter Milligan, Brendan Connelan- chairperson of The Loaves and Fishes Network which Trudy founded, SANTA - on whose board she served, and many others.
Mark Blecher wrote “…. Trudy was a powerhouse of good, providing inspiration, humour and honesty to many young activists. She was a pillar of strength and good guidance, providing leadership in the End Conscription Campaign, supporting our work in the Detainee support committees.”
Lindy Harris Kruger, Trudy’s oldest daughter, recounted how Trudy’s grandchildren called her their “Pop-Up Granny” as she was always there to help her family in time of need or crisis. Trudy’s niece, Jacquie Dommisse, spoke warmly of “Aunty Trudy”. Bev Schweitzer spoke of Trudy’s innovative “Sunshine Ward” at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in the 1970s where malnourished children who were not responding to normal feeding, suddenly started to grow when they were held, cuddled and stimulated by women employed for this purpose.
Sitting in a large semi-circle, people spoke spontaneously about the experiences of working with Trudy in various times and organisations including NAMDA, Save the Children, Progressive Doctors Network, The Black Sash, and the ECC. They told stories of her humour, honesty and integrity and her love of babies and children. She was a woman of great courage, passion, determination, intelligence and the ability to care very deeply.
Trudy’s time as MEC for Health in the Eastern Cape was characterised by tremendous progress in the first 3 years. This included 96 new clinics, 6 new outpatient and casualty department with 10 more planned and 8 hospitals upgraded. Participants spoke of the sadness that despite this tremendous work, the implementation of GEAR brought cutbacks that choked further desperately needed developments and Trudy had eventually resigned from politics. (These struggles are well described in her book – see below).
Trudy’s book of her memoirs is very aptly entitled “Healthy Outrage”. It is a reminder to us, especially as doctors, not to become complacent, nor to allow outrage at the unnecessary suffering of people to end in frustration – but rather to use the energy of this rage to create, innovate and initiate better health care. Trudy was a role model to many younger health workers and her life story should inspire our trainees to make a difference in the world when they go out as graduates to practice.
*Thomas T. Healthy Outrage. A lucky life in community health and politics. `2017. Published by Franz Kruger.