UC Davis Medical Center honors Nelson Mandela

Health care professionals from South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon, Sacramento and Oakland gathered at UC Davis Medical Center Thursday to honor former South African President Nelson Mandela, saying the best way to do so is to continue his struggle for justice and equality.

Framed by Mandela’s words to live by –including “It always seems impossible until it’s done” –on two overhead screens, about 100 doctors, nurses, professors and medical students gathered to hear several colleagues share how Mandela shaped their lives. Their remembrance came on the same day that leaders from countries around the world attended a memorial in South Africa for Mandela, who died last week.

Dr. Heather M. Young, dean of the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis, was born in South Africa the year Nelson Mandela and seven others were convicted of planning a violent revolution and promoting communism. “My dad was an anti-apartheid activist and as a young person I couldn’t imagine a way out of apartheid without a tremendous amount of bloodshed,” Young said. “What Mandela peacefully accomplished was absolutely impossible...he represents a person of clarity, passion and commitment who never waivered from his course.”

Young said when Mandela spoke to the nation, “you felt like he was talking to you. We hope his death unifies our world and moves us closer to justice.”

Dr. Ishwarlal “Kenny” Jialal, a distinguished professor of pathology and endocrinology, said he graduated from the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in South Africa in 1976, the year of the Soweto Uprising, where an estimated 176 students were killed “because they refused to learn Afrikans,” the language of the white overlords. “I lost a lot of my friends in the Soweto riots, and my classmate in medical school, activist Steve Biko, was also killed.”

That uprising and the national boycott of rugby and cricket - the Afrrikaners’ sports - along with Mandela’s leadership, led to the end of apartheid, Jialal said. “He was a messiah and a prophet, with the way he could internalize all the anger and mistreatment he endured.”

Lucy Ogbu-Nwobodo, a medical student from Nigeria, said she was 27, the same number of years Mandela spent in Robben Island Prison. “I would hate the world, I would be bitter, but he went to work for reconciliation and compromise.”

Ogbu-Nwobodo called attention to the inequality that exists in Sacramento. The poverty around the medical center and other parts of Sacramento “is very dire and calls for attention from all of us,” she said.