Cape Town’s history, as with most South African cities, is clouded in struggles, challenges, heroes and villains but most of all, change. In a time when the country is looking to health workers for more strength than ever before, a nurse who started her career in the 1970s is sharing her experience and advice.

Sister Dorothy Elaine Lewis can only be described as a hero and a pioneer of her time, being the first coloured woman to become a matron at Groote Schuur Hospital. Lewis recounts her experiences of when she entered into the world of nursing and how different those times were.

“I replied to an advertisement for a nursing sister in the newspaper in 1970. The hospital assumed that because I lived in Observatory I was white, and hired me without meeting me. They were rudely surprised that I was ‘non-white’ when I asked them for an interview and they met me face-to-face. But by then they had already hired me – although they changed the ward I would serve in. I wasn’t the first coloured nurse at the hospital – the sisters from Conradie came before me – but after three years I was promoted and became the first coloured matron at Groote Schuur,” Lewis told Heroes of Groote Schuur.

Lewis says her early years spent at the hospital were not without challenges but did not stop her from having her voice heard and helping those in need.

Lewis at the hospital in the 1970s.

“I enjoyed my time there. It was sometimes challenging because of the racism (many were oblivious that they were being racist), but I pulled myself together and had my say,” adds Lewis.

Lewis went on to tend to patients for 25 years before retiring in 1995. Now her son and her daughter-in-law work at the hospital and her grandchildren still attend the hospital creche according to Heroes of Groote Schuur.

Looking back over her years spent at the hospital, Lewis says one of her most memorable moments was helping to start a school for children of all colours.

“One of my proudest achievements was helping start Oakstreet School in the late 1970s. Originally there was a creche for the children of white employees, but I recommended that we create a creche for all children. I asked Mr van Zyl, the chief engineer, to design a hospital creche for me. He ordered the items that were needed for the creche from some money that we had saved.”

Lewis closer to her retirement in 1995.

Another highlight of her career was being asked to co-ordinate the Benevolent Association.

“I remember the association helping the choir. The choir sang under the palm trees every lunch as their practice space had been demolished with the creation of the new hospital. The Matrons were unhappy about the noise, so we helped them find a space in the doctor’s bungalows. The choir was also invited to the Waterfront every Christmas eve to sing and was served refreshments.”

Lewis was also involved in the planning for part of the hospital where medical staff reside.

“When they built the new section of the hospital, Dr Francois van der Merwe asked me to lunch, and told me that she’d like me to work with the architect. I worked with them for three years to help design Rochester House – a residence for medical staff.”

Lewis now.

After gaining years of wisdom at and now at age 87, Lewis is living in a different world to the one she grew up in. The world now faces a different challenge that is threatening the livelihoods of South Africans and people all around the world.

She shared some words of encouragement she hopes will reach the ears of today’s heath workers and people battling the virus.

“Thank you very much for allowing me to give a message. They must work very hard and make sure they follow the rules so we can all be okay.”

This article was made possible by Heroes of Groote Schuur, if you want to hear more about their heroes through the decade, follow them here.

Pictures: Heroes of Groote Schuur

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