Why Dr. Magnus Murphy Became A Gynecologist

Grab a cup of tea and delve into the interesting story of how Dr. Murphy became a renowned Gynecologist.

I grew up in South Africa and received almost all my formal education there. I grew up during the apartheid years and graduated from my residency just when South Africa became a ‘normal’ democratic country with universal suffrage.

Few non-South Africans know that South Africa had its own version of the ‘Vietnam War’ called the Angolan Bush War, or ‘South Africa’s Border War’. This war lasted from 1966 until 1990, and I was entangled in it like all white males over sixteen years of age.

At its height, this war involved up to fifty thousand Cuban troops, hundreds of thousands of Angolan communist soldiers, and hundreds of Russian officers and commanders. Against them stooe every white South African young man and thousands of volunteer black South African soldiers.

On their sixteenth birthday, every white boy was conscripted for a minimum of two years of military service. However, they could request a postponement for army service if they were still in high school or enrolled in specific (not all) university programs. Medicine was one of the programs that qualified for postponement or deferral since the army needed doctors. So – after seven years of medical training, I was conscripted and considered a ‘medical doctor’, or ‘SADF doctor’ (South African Defence Forces), to be specific.

During the six-month gap between graduating from medical school and the start of army training, I applied for a ‘medical officer’s job at the OBGYN department of my alma mater, and I got it. The system in South Africa is similar to that in the UK, where one has to work as a doctor in various positions before re-entering school for specialist training, if desired whereas In North America the system is completely different, with a more seamless progression. There are pros and cons to each, but that is a story for another time.

During medical school, I had previously done very well academically in my OBGYN rotation and enjoyed it, so working at the OBGYN department was a natural extension. For those six months, I did only obstetrics, and by the end of it had performed – independently – sixty cesarean sections, untold vaginal deliveries, and numerous other procedures.

Then, before I knew it, those six months ended I began training for the army. After graduating from basic training  and the officers course, I was posted to various army and navy bases as a lieutenant,  where I treated coughs, colds, and snotty noses.

On one fateful day, I got the orders we all dreaded: I was being deployed to the active operational area in either northern Namibia (then Southwest Africa) or Angola for at least six months. I was flown under cover of darkness and at treetop height to evade RPG rockets (we were being shot at) into Opuwo, close to the border of Northwestern Namibia and Angola, in Kaokoland. With me, there were two other SADF (South African Defense Force) officers– another doctor my age and a pharmacist. Between the three of us, we were going to run a hospital that served the Indigenous population of Northwestern Namibia, a large part of Angola, and war casualties in emergencies. To say we were thrown into the deep end makes a mockery of the term ‘understatement.’

The very day we arrived, we were immediately faced with a significant incident that set the tone for the rest of our stay and might very well have saved our lives, as it turned out. We had hardly unpacked our few clothes and locked up our M5 rifles (SADF semi automatic assault rifle) when the head matron of the hospital, a local Herero woman, brought her thirteen-year-old daughter to see us. After we examined the ill young girl, we made the provisional diagnosis of acute appendicitis. We had no ultrasound, no CT scan, and no MRI. Just our hands, thermometer, stethoscopes, and training. She rapidly deteriorated, and it soon became apparent that she required surgery. Our problem was that we could not get her out of our hospital into a bigger center (the capital – Windhoek) where there were specialists. The roads were mined, and planes were being shot at. We were on our own.

The other doctor and I had a decision to make: who would be the surgeon, and who would be the anesthetist? Since I had done some cesarean sections, and he had done more anesthetics, it was settled. For the next six months, I was the surgeon, and he was the anesthetist. I took my first appendix out that night, and my reputation was made. The girl recovered quickly.

Our next problem was to decide how to divide the workload. Unlike Canadian hospitals, South African hospitals were strictly separated by sex. I usually tell this story with a side-note that we flipped a coin, but honestly, I can’t remember what we did. In any case, I ended up with the female ward under my care. For the next six months, I looked after every female patient that came to the hospital (patients sometimes walked for a week to get to us– and then only if they avoided the landmines). I delivered babies, did emergency surgery, and cared for all female patients with malaria and tropical diseases and any other problem that walked through our doors. 

I remember one patient distinctly; she was a twenty-one-year-old woman bitten by a poisonous snake (a puffadder) on the forehead. Given that a puffadder’s poison is cytotoxic, we spent hours picking through dying flesh to save as much of her face as we could.

The war ended while we were there. My main claim to fame during this time was that we were the last SADF officers to leave the operational zone. This was because the SADF forgot about us. Indeed, the SADF pulled back, forgot about us, and the town was overrun with Cubans, Angolans, and Russians before we knew it. I believe our lives were saved by the local hospital nurses (especially the head matron), who negotiated with the Russian commander to allow the SADF to evacuate us one night via helicopter in a M*A*S*H like operation. While anxiously waiting for this rescue operation, we could see the ‘enemy’ looking at us through the windows; three young white guys in the wrong place, at the wrong time. I still count myself lucky.

After my return to South Africa, I was posted to a naval base but heard through the grapevine that my alma mater’s academic OBGYN department was incidentally holding their academic grand rounds and teaching sessions on Wednesday afternoons. This was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the base where I was working, but I drove there each week for more than six months to attend the lectures. 

At the end of those studies, I challenged the South African College of Medicine’s OBGYN residency examination (written by all OBGYN residents from each medical school in the country) before I was even a resident. I was the first person ever to do so, and I passed with the highest marks in the country. The certificate and medal (Charlewood medal) I received still hang proudly on my office wall at Protea Pelvic Floor Clinic in Calgary. I eventually became an official OBGYN resident – and – well, here I am, three decades later. I’m still a gynecologist and caring for female patients.