My career: A short description on the 60th anniversary of our graduation
I have fond memories of my student days despite the amount of work we had to do and the fact that my gender subjected me to teasing and making me work even harder to prove my worth. It did benefit me however, in that I was awarded the prize for the best woman graduate of Wits in 1960!
Immediately after graduation, my husband Len Myers and I moved down to the Eastern Cape where I completed my internship at the Uitenhage Hospital, in between having my two sons, Gary and Ian.
I then gave Len an ultimatum, ‘Me or Uitenhage - take your pick!’. We compromised and moved to Port Elizabeth.
As there was no way I could specialise there, I worked for clinics and did locums. I really did not know what I was going to do. In 1963, soon after the birth of my second son, Ian, my career was determined for me as he presented with food allergies (egg and nuts), eczema, asthma and rhinitis.
How to deal with allergy?
There were no allergists in South Africa and so I struggled to treat him. I was given advice by reputable doctors on diet, which in fact was detrimental to him, physiotherapy, with no improvement, desensitisation which caused asthma attacks and continued use of aminophylline, cortisone and adrenaline for acute attacks.
I then heard about a doctor in Kimberley who had had some success in treating asthma. We went to Kimberley and I met the first practitioner who implicated the environment in asthma. He had previously worked in Cape Town but on moving to Kimberley realised he was not seeing any asthma there.
He told me to use a half a Nethaprin Dospan. This, together with a total 'clean up' of carpets, pets, no visiting, staying home from nursery school, led to a gradual decrease in exacerbations.
I was then fortunate to meet Dr Eugene Weinberg who became the father of allergy in SA. We 'spoke the same language' and it was so comforting to be able to discuss allergy problems with him.
At almost the same time sodium cromoglycate appeared on the scene and with regular dosing, Ian made remarkable progress, even starting to play sport at which he shone.
Soon after this salbutamol inhalers became available and this combination of drugs allowed Ian to become the Victor Ludorum of his school. In 1968, my daughter Jenny was born. Career-wise, saw patients for asthma and allergy in PE and started testing them with skin prick tests which were hardly known at that time.
Back to Johannesburg
In 1982 we moved back to Johannesburg where was lucky enough to be given a post in the JG Strydom Hospital Respiratory Unit run by Mike Plit. I became involved in doing drug trials and treating asthma patients as well as learning about respiratory illnesses and general medicine. There were now wonderful new products available for treating asthma including inhaled corticosteroids and later the long acting non-sedating antihistamines and long acting bronchodilators.
Allergy Society of South Africa
I started to attend conferences on respiratory problems of which asthma featured prominently. Then, to my delight, the Allergy Society of SA was established. This gave me the impetus to start doing work on allergy and the role it played in all the conditions that made up the syndrome of atopy namely asthma, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, eczema and food allergy.
We had been doing skin prick tests at the asthma clinic for years and so t started by analysing these results and establishing which were the most common allergens.
In 1989, when the government reinforced the rules of white-only patients and doctors at the hospital, Wits withdrew from there. We all had to find alternate posts. I was urged by Jeff Lipman, head of the Intensive Care unit to accompany him and the staff to Baragwanath Hospital.
Teaching anaesthetic registrars for risk assessment
I had become involved in a teaching programme for anaesthetic registrars on how to examine patients so that they could diagnose their illnesses and then assess risk for anaesthesia.
Jeff wanted me to continue with this successful programme, which I did at Bara.
I was also involved with asthma patients and improving their diagnosis and management, as well as begging the authorities to improve the facilities for these patients and the doctors treating them. The conditions for both doctors and patients were awful to say the least. I not only gave talks to all staff on the poor results of asthma management at the hospital but also arranged lectures and teaching ward rounds for the anaesthetic registrars.
Sadly, my relationship with the head of the Respiratory Unit was strained and it became impossible for me to continue working under him. I wanted to leave Bara but Jeff prevailed upon me to stay, gave me a post in the anaesthetic unit and allowed me to choose whatever else I wanted to do.
Paediatric Asthma Unit at Bara
I joined the paediatric asthma unit and my entire research now took on meaning as I studied allergy in asthmatic black children, as well as all the other conditions from which they suffered in the realm of allergy. I managed to organise and perform skin-prick testing on all the patients as well as on cardiac patients as a control group.
I was so pleased when David Luyt returned from England to join the unit. Together, we designed questionnaires on all aspects which we could study and compare with published data. We won awards to continue with this work. Briefly we showed that black children had the same rates of positive tests for allergy/atopy as white children, disproving the previously held belief that black children were not allergic.
It was also proof that black children commonly had asthma, contrary to published data that there were very few asthmatic black children. What was astounding was that almost 50% were positive to house dust mites, an allergy supposed not to be common on the Highveld (low humidity) and in patients who had lived all their lives in Soweto. I then went looking inside their homes to see what levels of mites there were jn the bedding. They were much lower than were found at the coast. It appeared that children were becoming sensitised to house dust mites at much lower levels.
In addition, I studied the family histories. These were mainly negative for allergy as opposed to those of their white counterparts. I tested the parents as well. They too were atopic (a term used for proving sensitivity to common allergens) but of all these parents only two had clinical allergy/asthma and those two had been born in Soweto, whereas the rest were born in rural areas.
The conclusions drawn were that an urban environment, exposure to diesel fumes, indoor living and western style bedding, perhaps even manufactured and preserved food rather than freshly made, were all responsible for this dramatic increase in atopic asthma in black children.
I presented this work at many conferences, both in SA and overseas, and hopefully triggered interest in the role of the environment. Many of my lectures were directed towards teaching how to diagnose allergy, to assess severity and to treat appropriately. I was constantly urging doctors to do skin prick tests or even blood tests to make a correct diagnosis and despite repeatedly lecturing about specific IgE, to this day doctors ask for total IgE test results.Diploma in Allergy
There had been no qualification in SA for specialising in allergy. However, in 2003 I wrote the first examination and orals for the Diploma in Allergy, in the company of other students who were about the same age as my children!
I still see patients with allergy problems and continue to enjoy every minute of time spent with them, especially when they tell me they are much better with treatment.
My second career is assessing employees for disability. I was well prepared for this as a consequence of my years of teaching anaesthetic registrars how to assess patients for severity of illness and therefore risk for an anaesthetic. It is hard work and meant my having to keep up with most modalities of medicine including occupational health. In the world of sick leave and disability benefits one learns to become objective and strict and highly critical of doctors' reports on which one has to rely for all information.
I have been venerated by the Allergy Society with honorary life membership of the organisation as well as receiving a Distinguished Service award. One of the best compliments I have ever received was to be described as being an ethical doctor.
Here I am with Len (who sadly passed away in October 2018) and our three children: daughter Jenny with me at the back and Gary and Ian are on each side of Len.
I feel blessed to be able to continue working and being busy, as am constantly lonely without Len, who passed away just two months before what would have been our 60th wedding anniversary in 2018.
I have six grandchildren, two of whom have completed their studies and the rest currently at university. I believe that my offspring are still the best achievement of my life.
I look forward to reading all about the careers of my fellow graduates, many of whom I know have made a great impact on medicine, as a result of their abilities and great education received at Wits.
Biography contributed by
Gloria Davis-Myers MB BCh Diploma in Allergy
Johannesburg, July 2020