Dr John Sonnenberg has seen many changes, both good and bad, in his 65 years practising medicine – diseases that wreaked havoc in the 1950s and 1960s are virtually non-existent today, while other chilling new ailments have risen in their place.
The Gardens resident, who retired from medicine at the end of last year at the age of 89, reflected on his long and distinguished career during a talk at the Cape Medical Museum last week
Dr Sonnenberg grew up in Green Point and went to school at Christian Brothers College.
After qualifying in 1951, he did his internship at Groote Schuur Hospital and in 1953 he worked as a junior medical officer at City Hospital for infectious diseases, near where the medical museum is now in Green Point. He worked at the hospital for three years.
“One worked extremely hard for long periods, day and night. That’s what happens when you are newly qualified – you used to be on call for 36 hours at a time. It could be very tough.
“Present day doctors are complaining, but it was exactly like that 60 years ago. It isn’t any worse than it was. I sometimes didn’t see my kids from morning till night.”
Many of the antibiotics that people use today weren’t around when Dr Sonnenberg started practising.
“They started becoming more developed in the 50s and 60s. The other tremendous advance was with anaesthetics, which became more and more sophisticated. It enabled surgeons to perform operations on patients that they were previously unable to do because of the risk.”
Through the years, he has marvelled at other rapid advances in medicine, including highly sophisticated cameras and minimally invasive surgeries with rapid recovery times.
“All these forms of surgery where people recuperate in two weeks instead of six weeks – it’s been an enormous advance that I’ve witnessed from the start… stuff is being done today that wasn’t dreamed of.”
During his lifetime he has also seen the virtual eradication of measles, mumps and polio.
“In 1955 to 1957, we had a polio epidemic in Cape Town. I worked day and night at the City Hospital when we had 700 cases in the space of 18 months. Just after that, when it was almost over, the first polio vaccine became available.
“We had a very severe epidemic and that hospital was established originally in 1902 to deal with the plague epidemic.”
Polio mostly affected children, especially those under the age of 5.
“Once you were paralysed with polio it was irreversible; it doesn’t get better. It was most commonly in the lower limbs but in the severe cases it extended to the whole body; it also affected swallowing.”
But the threat of polio had barely receded when a chilling new disease loomed on the horizon – HIV/Aids, working together with tuberculosis, an old infectious foe already prevalent in the country, was to prove particularly devastating in South Africa.
And once again, just as medical science turns the tables on HIV, transforming what was once considered a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition, Dr Sonnenberg has noticed the rise of a new and surprising epidemic – diseases of lifestyle such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
“ It’s affecting segments of our population that have never suffered from those conditions. Diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease were unknown and now they’re very much. It’s changing the whole picture of medicine.
“We’ve conquered the infectious diseases – we can’t cure them, but we can control them; the major problem is the emergence of these diseases. It’s definitely to do with changes in lifestyle, diet and obesity,” he says, blaming the easy availability of cheap junk food.
Asked how he managed to sustain himself in a tough career for so long, he’s quick off the mark with a witty comeback: “Hard work never killed anybody.”
Apart from his medical practice, Dr Sonnenberg was on the City council for more than 20 years, the provincial council for nine years, the board of the Somerset Hospital for nearly 30 years and the board of the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra for 26 years.
Commenting on the state of health care in the country today, he has ready praise for Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, saying he is the best health minister he had worked under.
“Because of his experience in practising in Soweto, he knows the difficulties and problems of medical practice.”
Dr Sonnenberg also believes a national health insurance (NHI) policy would be a positive step with the cooperation of the private sector.
“My own view would be, that it would be desirable if this country could adopt an attitude like Obamacare, where everyone irrespective of whether they have private care or not, has to pay national insurance. In that way the more affluent people subsidise the people that are poor. That type of system, in my view, would be the most suitable and fairest way of providing a uniform health care service.”
But such a service needs doctors and lots of them. “It’s vital that we do train more doctors and I think they should be trained in South African conditions. They should develop more medical schools here and try and graduate more doctors every year.”