They give kids a fighting chance
•The Herald (South Africa)
•9 Aug 2019
•Kathryn Kimberley email@example.com
Not all superheroes wear capes, some wear stethoscopes around their necks.
For thousands of parents with gravely ill children, the three women doctors who run Provincial Hospital’s paediatric oncology ward are their unsung heroes.
Time and again, Dr Johani Vermeulen, Dr Elmarie Mathews and Dr Bulelwa Masoka save lives, or at the very least give each child that crosses their path a fighting chance – and that is their superpower.
They believe their racial and cultural differences make them the perfect team.
One thing they do have in common – other than being women, of course – is that they are adamant that, decades from now, they will remember every single one of their little patients.
From Koster in the North West to Butterworth and Port Elizabeth, the three women came from different sides of SA to work together under one roof.
Their patients, many of them born sick, have life-threatening illnesses and it is their mission to save their lives.
Vermeulen, 43, the head oncologist, said she had wanted to be a doctor from as far back as she could remember.
She studied towards her medical degree at the University of Pretoria, ultimately specialising as a paediatrician, a field still widely dominated by men, particularly in the Eastern Cape.
She did her fellowship in paediatric oncology, which she quickly realised was her calling.
It was her friend, Mathews, born and bred in Port Elizabeth, who informed her there was no paediatric oncologist in the city.
In 2011, she made contact with head of paediatrics, Dr Lungile Pepeta.
“I phoned him and told him my plan, but that I would need to specialise first,” Vermeulen said from her consulting room at Provincial Hospital.
The walls are adorned by photographs of smiling children, newspaper clippings and colourful drawings from patients.
“I then started at Dora [Nginza Hospital] and financial arrangements were made for me to complete my studies in Pretoria on condition that I come back here,” she said.
In 2014, she helped start the paediatric oncology unit at Dora Nginza, where Mathews joined her.
In April 2015, Vermeulen and Mathews moved the unit over to the larger M3 unit at Provincial.
Once she obtained her accreditation from the Health Professions Council of SA, she took Mathews under her wing and began training her as a paediatric oncologist.
Mathews said Vermeulen had a tough exterior, but underneath it all she was a real softie.
“Johani can make a plan even when you didn’t know there was a problem yet.
“She is kind and soft-hearted, and I love the way she loves every single one of the children,” Mathews said of her boss.
Vermeulen smiled as she recalls their very first patient, Emihle Xhoma, who has since died.
She points to a picture overlooking her desk of the beautiful, bald-headed little girl.
“She will always hold a special spot in our hearts.
“The biggest thing I have learnt in the past five years is that you can’t do it on your own.
“Everyone who knows us knows that we pray a lot. It’s the only way, because medicine is not always the answer,” Vermeulen said.
Mathews, 37, who matriculated from Collegiate High School in 1999, also grew up in a religious home.
Her father is a minister.
Her dream was to become a musician, but her parents convinced her to study medicine instead.
She submitted her application a day before the deadline and, as fate would have it, she made the cut.
She specialised as a paediatrician at the University of Pretoria in 2008, before returning home and meeting up with Vermeulen.
On April 29 2019, she became the first doctor in the Eastern Cape to study in Port Elizabeth and become a boardcertified paediatric oncologist.
“It can be an awful place if you just look at the negatives.
“But we often find ourselves laughing because the kids are so amazing,” Mathews said.
Masoka, 39, said Mathews was her go-to person.
“What has humbled me the most is that, even when the children don’t make it, the parents often come back to thank us for our support,” Masoka said.
“What they don’t realise is that sometimes these parents are the ones supporting us.”
The only mother in the group, she said having an 11year-old son meant she had to try hard not to let her emotions get in the way, but it had resulted in her taking in more precious moments with her own child.
Originally from Butterworth, she studied medicine at the University of Medunsa in 1998. She did a brief stint at Dora Nginza before moving to Cape Town for a year, where she worked at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, where Eastern Cape children had to go before the Port Elizabeth unit was established.
In 2018, she joined the team at Provincial.
Masoka remembers the exact moment she decided to become a doctor.
“There is always that one girl in class that you want to be like.
“At the age of 11 our teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up.
“This girl put up her hand and said she wanted to become a doctor, so I copied her and said the same thing.
“Needless to say I became the doctor and she did not,” Masoka laughed.
Vermeulen said Masoka brought a sense of calmness and peace to the team. “She has this quiet strength. “It is so assuring to know that she is around.”
Working in a high-stress environment where decisions had to be made in a split second, she said Masoka did not easily become shaken.
Mathews said the mothers played a large role in the lives of their patients.
“A trust relationship needs to be built up with the mother of the child and, being women, we have that motherly instinct.”