Ivonne Gentle has been looking after dying dear ones since she was six years old, when the first of her three sisters passed away from cancer… writes Julienne du Toit.
By the time her third sister succumbed in 2000, Ivonne and her husband Tommie had moved from Gauteng to the little Northern Cape settlement of Britstown. In her new community she was face-to-face with the sick, vulnerable and neglected.
Ivonne went from door to door in Britstown, offering home-based care. Then she began to take patients into the family home, beginning with one terminally ill homeless woman.
She and Tommie wound down their successful main road café business (which had seven small flats at the back of the property) and turned it into Gentlecare, currently offering sanctuary to 32 patients.
What other people avoid, she seeks out. Ivonne confronts the worst humanity has to offer: cruelty, heartlessness, mindless suffering. Yet she remains undaunted and greets every moment with gratitude.
“We are surrogate mother and father for those who have no one,” she explains. “It’s our passion to help people who are sick and in need.”
Gentlecare is a place of last resort, funded by the UK-based Thomas family, local donors, churches, farmers’ wives and the sale of branded enamelware.
Those who have nowhere else to go and no one else to care for them seem to end up here. As their distinctly unglossy brochure says:
“Patients receive three nutritious meals a day, a clean bed, attentive care and love. Those who pass away, do so with dignity and the knowledge that they are valued and loved. Others make remarkable recoveries.”
Ivonne tells the harrowing stories of patients past and present in a respectful but matter-of-fact way. A young boy was found mistreating a tortoise and was pushed so violently he fell and broke his neck. He is now paralysed and has also lost a leg.
A prisoner with 90% burns on him was dropped off at Gentlecare. As was a stroke victim, who arrived buck-naked. Two pre-teen boys with genetic defects including gigantism and severe autism (turned away by 62 other institutions) are here.
A young man without a tongue was found in a burnt-out house in Kimberley and brought here. A farmer became a homeless wanderer, was involved in a very bad accident and now has a brain tumour and a bed at Gentlecare.
“Oh, I could tell you a lot of sad stories. And I can survive and get through it all. But what I cannot take is politics. We all deserve to be treated equally and with dignity.”
She draws her strength from the Bible, Mother Teresa and prayer. She holds onto her sanity by crocheting intricate doilies, the more difficult the better.
And of course, there are heart-warming stories, like that of an old man called Frik, who dropped to the pavement with a stroke one day. He was taken to Boksburg’s provincial hospital without contact details or ID documents on him. He was a man lost.
Somehow, in one of the many miracles that seem to kick in whenever Ivonne really needs one, a friend was able to find and bring Frik to Britstown. Physically, he improved. But mentally, “he just wasn’t working with us,” says Ivonne.
One day, he mumbled something about how he missed “his child”. It turned out that the child was his dog. Someone managed to find a lift to Britstown for the dog, which was being cared for by neighbours. He was a moody Schnauzer called Asjas.
“The day they were reunited, everyone just cried. It was the most incredible thing to see. From that moment on, Frik improved dramatically. Asjas sleeps under his bed.”
Gentlecare is on Britstown’s main road, opposite the lovely Transkaroo Country Lodge Hotel.
Written by Julienne du Toit, Photographs by Chris Marais