The good doctor: Mark Blaylock on finding meaning back at Manguzi

The good doctor: Mark Blaylock on finding meaning back at ManguziDr Mark Blaylock, medical manager at Manguzi Hospital. PHOTO: Supplied.
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There was a time, about 20 years ago, when, at the Manguzi district hospital in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, (and, of course, at hospitals throughout South Africa too) mothers and their babies were dying of AIDS at shockingly high rates.

“We used to get these patients who were slow progressors,” Mark Blaylock, medical manager at Manguzi, tells Spotlight. “Then there were the rapid progressors – babies who were HIV-positive who would get sick very quickly. There wasn’t much we could do for them. We’d give them vitamins and Bactrim, but ultimately they died. Then we had the ones who got sick a bit later, and those were even worse because now mum has had this baby for five years and they’ve bonded, and are a little family and now they are coming in with AIDS. Obviously, a huge number of mums died too. It was heartbreaking.

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“It was the pregnancies that knocked their vulnerable immune systems. We’d watch it over and over again. The mums would come in looking ok and then they’d get pregnant and just go downhill. This was in the pre-ARV era. Pregnancy was a death sentence. I think people have forgotten what it was like in those days.”

Blaylock is talking to Spotlight from Northern KwaZulu-Natal, relaying how things have changed for the better since that terrible era. “It’s quite astounding,” he says. Blaylock returned to the hospital ten years ago after having been away for four.

“I was going through the stats recently, and in those days, 40 percent of all mothers who delivered were HIV positive, and about 40 percent of those babies born to HIV- positive mothers ended up with HIV either from birth or breastfeeding. About 20 percent would pick up HIV at birth and another 20 percent would pick it up subsequently through breastfeeding.

“These days, if we have one baby who is delivered HIV-positive or who picks up HIV, we get really upset. Our six-month HIV-positive rate now for babies is less than 0.6 percent and that is a dramatic change. It makes me so happy. Unfortunately, the young girls are still positive, but at least their babies are not becoming positive.”

baby hands
The 11th SA AIDS conference, held in Durban in June, highlighted the worrying fact that key HIV numbers such as treatment coverage are much lower in children than in adults. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Blaylock puts the changes down, “purely”, to prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMCT) using antiretroviral therapy (ART). “Remember how, at one stage, we only gave HIV treatment if a patient was below a certain CD4 count? That was changed to test-and-treat, so regardless of their CD4 count, patients will get HIV treatment which brings the viral load down dramatically,” he says. “And now we have dolutegravir (an ARV), which is the backbone of our current HIV treatment. The success is due to prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTC) as well as the test-and-treat policy.”

‘A mixed bag’

It’s Sunday, a day off for Blaylock, and he’s speaking from a place with the best reception near his house on the edge of the Shengeza Lake. He lives here with his wife, Liz and their 13-year-old home-schooled daughter, Una. The sound of birds in the background makes it hard to hear him on the call. “It’s peaceful. There are hippos all around and lots of birds. It’s Eskom-free, which is even better. I love it. We live with three dogs, three cats, a genet, and I can’t tell you how many snakes. It’s paradise.”

It’s taken a long time to clinch this interview, but Blaylock has finally relented and forwarded us the provincial health department’s media protocol he has to adhere to. On problems in KwaZulu-Natal’s health system, he is reticent, saying only that it’s a “mixed bag”. “There’s a lot of dead wood, but there are real areas of excellence,” he says.

Working at Manguzi Hospital has given him a sense of purpose, says Blaylock. PHOTO: Supplied

His reticence is understandable.

There was a time, also about 15 years ago, amidst the noise and turmoil of the last few years of state-backed AIDS denialism, when Blaylock was going through his own personal trauma. In April 2008, whilst working as chief medical officer at Manguzi, he was suspended for throwing an official photograph of then-Health MEC Peggy Nkonyeni into a dustbin in the hospital’s foyer. He did this out of anger and frustration, after his colleague at the hospital, Colin Pfaff was charged with misconduct for sourcing funding for antiretroviral drugs for pregnant women, and for implementing dual antiretroviral therapy to save babies from HIV – because politicians were not doing so.

He was also furious about comments made by Nkonyeni, questioning the integrity of rural doctors and suggesting they were racist. The South African National AIDS Council soon after asked the Human Rights Commission to probe the ‘racial tone’ of Nkonyeni’s remarks and to curb her ‘harassment’ of Manguzi doctors.

At the time, Blaylock (and Pfaff) were hailed by many working in the health sector as heroes with a deep commitment to their patients. In a letter to the provincial health department at the time, Blaylock said he had given his “heart and soul” to the under-resourced hospital, going beyond the call of duty.

Needing a change

Blaylock was reinstated but, in December 2008, he decided to leave, saying he needed a change and because the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health was in “absolute disarray”. He says his old colleague Pfaff went to work as a missionary doctor in Malawi.

After leaving Manguzi Hospital in 2008, Dr Blaylock moved to Ghana. PHOTO: Supplied

There was more to Blaylock’s decision to leave Manguzi than just the public disagreement with Nkonyeni. In our interview, he describes those days as “a really tough decade”. “Working in paediatrics, as I did for my first couple of years at Manguzi, I couldn’t take it anymore, emotionally. I just couldn’t do it, so I taught myself surgery. That was easier, as you could fix people. We were also so broken from losing so many friends, colleagues, and patients from HIV at the time. It was definitely traumatising and emotionally exhausting, not just for me but for Liz.

“There’s no doubt most of us were burnt out,” he says. “We kind of knew it, but we pushed on anyway. We were also quite a bit wilder and younger. We’d blow off steam by recklessly taking tiny boats across the lake, in the big waves, with lots of hippos – or we’d go for runs along the beach or naked midnight swims.”

The years outside SA

After leaving Manguzi, Blaylock moved to Ghana, where he took up a position as a general doctor at ABA Hospital in Tarkwa, north-east of Accra. “The hospital was part of the national health system but contracted to a mine, so we would treat people and then try and charge the government, fairly unsuccessfully, for the treatment,” he says. “I’d always fancied the idea of Ghana. I had this fantasy about Kwame Nkrumah and it being the first country to throw off Britain in Africa – but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. Everywhere you went, the police were pulling you over and asking for bribes.”

Mosquito larvae. PHOTO: NIAID

A defining moment was when Blaylock says he noticed the anti-malaria medication the hospital was giving patients was “just not working”. “Our malaria patients kept coming back full of parasites. I knew there were similar drugs in South Africa which were fantastic, so there was definitely something wrong.” He says he sent a sample to South Africa for testing and realised that “they weren’t as full of the good stuff as they were meant to be”. “I handed in the report and said ‘deal with it.”

From Ghana, where he married Liz and where his daughter Una was born, the family moved to the Kansanshi Mine Hospital in Zambia where they lived on a “beautiful golf estate, surrounded by poverty”.

“It didn’t feel right at all and was quite unfulfilling work,” he recalls. “I did GP work and there was lots of babbalaria – that’s when mostly the expat wives have a hangover on a Monday morning and they think they have malaria.”

Being “medically bored” in Zambia, Blaylock returned to Newcastle in KZN with the aim of specialising in anaesthetics. He worked in Madadeni Hospital’s anaesthetics department, before getting into a registrar’s programme on the anaesthetics circuit at various hospitals in Durban.


‘Like walking back home’

Then, in 2012, his friend and colleague Etienne Immelman, then working as medical manager of Manguzi, suggested that Blaylock should “come home”. “Etienne had been at Manguzi for more than 20 years when he retired six years ago. We’d always had a friendship and a mutual loyalty. He wanted someone to take over.”

Blaylock decided that indeed, it was time. It meant losing the opportunity to specialise, but he says it “felt right”. He went back as medical officer, before becoming manager.

“When I first arrived back, we were a small team, working hard. We all had the same commitment. It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging which hasn’t left.”

Blaylock said the hospital went through a “wonderful period” with a core team of great doctors. “But I burnt them all out during COVID – we had 164 deaths, but we pulled a lot of people through and many of the doctors have moved on. We have a young team now and they are getting there, but we don’t have the broad skill range we used to have. That is common across most district hospitals nowadays.”

A mobile clinic for COVID screening and testing in KwaZulu-Natal during the pandemic. PHOTO: KZN Health

So, is he happy to have come full circle, back to the place that was once a source of deep distress to him? “Yes,” he says. “For me, it’s about the community. This place gives me that, as well as a sense of stability and purpose. If you go into a little shop in Manguzi, everyone knows who you are. You say hallo to each other. You shout at a taxi driver and he says, ‘Hey Mark, don’t be so naughty’. When I came back ten years ago, it was like walking back home. It’s just a nice feeling.”

He says a lot has changed in the area. “People say there’s been no development, but when I first arrived at Manguzi in 2002, we knew every car on the road. Today, the town is overwhelmed with vehicles. There’s more money around. We almost never see malnutrition anymore. A lot of government programmes are working, as much as we like to diss them.”

Taking a stand

Given the toll that taking a stand has taken on doctors like Blaylock and Pfaff, one might be forgiven for wondering whether it was all worth it.

Did it make a difference to how things turned out? “Absolutely,” says Blaylock. “There were people scattered people around South Africa at the time who were doing great things. In our part of the world, it was Victor Friedland at Mseleni Hospital and Colin Pfaff (at Manguzi) who were the big drivers, pushing for the right actions to provide the services that the HIV Clinicians Society at the time thought was the correct one and was affordable. The Western Cape had already started, so we weren’t doing anything that groundbreaking except that it hadn’t been official policy yet,” he says.

As elsewhere in the country there have been many advances in HIV treatment at Manguzi Hospital. PHOTO: Rodrigo Nunes/MS

“Can you believe that when HIV treatment first came to South Africa, it was going to be done at tertiary hospitals only? Imagine the repercussions for us sending a patient to Durban – in those days the Hluhluwe road was 160 kilometres of dirt road – to go and get their HIV treatment once a month. It was not sustainable.

“The HIV (Clinicians) Society pushed hard to get it decentralised to all hospitals. Then it was just going to be done by doctors and they said we absolutely cannot do it just with doctors. It has to be a nurse-run programme. Their vision became our current system. They weren’t the only people, but they were at the forefront of it at the time.”

‘Keeping it going’

Apart from the many advances in HIV treatment, much else has changed at Manguzi over the last 15 years. Blaylock says these days the hospital’s gastro wards are empty “thanks to the rotavirus vaccine”. “We’ve also seen a turnaround in acute respiratory tract infection,” he says. “The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine has changed that dramatically. We have also seen the pushing out of Continuous Positive Pressure Airway Ventilation (CPAP) for neonatal respiratory distressed newborns to district hospitals. This is a non-invasive way of ventilating babies with immature lungs,” he says.

“Our next great hope is the HPV vaccine, which will be a groundbreaker. It’s been rolled out in the past couple of years, but we’ll only see the effects in ten years or so because cervical cancer takes a few decades to come about. The other thing I really want to get in,” he insists, “is that our therapy department (offers occupational therapy, speech and hearing, and physiotherapy) at Manguzi is astonishingly fantastic. There are a lot of good things happening,” he says. “It is so easy to sit on the things that irritate you, but it is worth trying to remember the wins.”

As with several other rural doctors Spotlight has interviewed over the years, Blaylock seems deeply committed to building on what works at Manguzi and simply getting things done. As he says, “When you’ve invested so much into a hospital, you want to keep going as much as you can.”