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True grit: What it takes to be a trauma physician in SA

Dr. Sa’ad Lahri is no stranger to the chaos of a busy trauma unit, but he wouldn't change it for the world.

A doctor sutures a man's nose and face after he was admitted to the Khayelitsha District Hospital's trauma unit. Picture: Anthony Molyneaux/EWN

CAPE TOWN - South Africa has long been known as a great training ground for trauma doctors, who come from all over the world to gain experience in emergency medical care.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to seek out the chaos of a facility flooded with the sick and dying, this is what some doctors live for.

Sa'ad Lahri is a doctor at Cape Town's Khayelitsha Hospital, a relatively new facility that opened its doors in 2012.

It sees around 3,000 patients a month, of which almost half arrive severely ill or injured.

But Lahri did not always thrive on chaos.

He recounts how, fresh out of medical school in 2004, he had something of a baptism of fire while working in a Limpopo hospital.

There was a sick patient who was dying and he didn't know how to use the defibrillator.

Lahri tried to get assistance, but it wasn't soon enough and the patient died.

His mentor found him crying on the floor one day afterwards and then put him through life support courses.

It set him on a path, which he would follow all the way to Cape Town.

Twelve years later he is working a Saturday night shift in Khayelitsha.

A typical weekend evening is characterised, in no particular order, by a plethora of stabbings, car accidents, gunshot victims and the odd mental patient coming through the doors.

Lahri does not have to think long or hard about why he does it.

"It's the adrenaline rush, hey. It's just the chance to be able to save someone. It's that instinct to want to be a hero," he tells EWN .

He refers to a patient who came in that day, bleeding profusely and who would almost certainly have died if he wasn't helped.

"He needed a particular life-saving intervention at that particular moment and if we were perhaps one minute delayed, we would have lost him," he says.

But Lahri isn't blasé about the effects of experiencing the traumatic scenes day in and day out.

"Sometimes, you know, you do have nightmares. I'm not saying I've never had it. Like the time… there was a guy in the community, he was slaughtering people and he cut through their necks and they came in with blood oozing as if they were cut like sheep. And I still remember that," he confesses.

What helps him get through times like these, he says, is his team.

A debriefing session is also held each morning after a hectic night in the trauma unit.

"We have a great team spirit here and we all go through the same thing... we support each other. I think we're like an army here," he laughs.

"But generally we deal with it with our culture and team spirit and you know as you've noticed we have lots of coffee."

The rigours are a harsh reality, but for Lahri the rewards make it worth it a million times over.

"It's perhaps the only chance that I thought I'll get to be a hero," he says.

"You know we look after people at their most vulnerable and we're there for them when they are possible their worst possible days ever… It's just a privilege and an honour to look after somebody who's sick and dying and at their worst."

WATCH: Coping in chaos: Saturday night at Khayelitsha Hospital