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Tshemba Foundation completes a circle


Volunteers bring their medical skills to rural area

Tshemba is a story that begins with two Witsies who left South Africa under apartheid and had successful careers overseas but still felt there was something missing from their lives.

Godfrey Phillips (BA 1973) worked at Young & Rubicam in New York for nearly 20 years, specialising in strategic development. He also studied the medical division of labour for his PhD in Social Policy.

Neil Tabatznik (BA 1972) practised as a barrister in the UK for 15 years, specialising in criminal defence advocacy, and then moved to Canada. There he was Chairman of Genpharm Pharmaceuticals from 1993 to 1999, before founding Arrow Canada, also a pharmaceutical company. He is also a movie and documentary producer – Chairman of Blue Ice Pictures, which he founded with Steven Silver (BA 1989, BA Hons 1990). 

A few years ago, they found a way to fill the gap they’d identified.

“As Neil and I came to the end of our working lives in Canada and the USA,” says Phillips, “we talked about what we could do to give back to the country that we still love and which was taken from us in the apartheid regime. In a way it was completing the golden circle of our lives. Finding time was never an issue, we just needed to discover what we could do to make a difference that was different.”

Rural health care was crying out for that difference. “The inequality between the urban and rural areas is so extreme that it was just not possible to turn a blind eye to it,” explains Tabatznik.

“It was heartbreakingly clear to me that the difference between living and dying is based solely on where an individual lives. To me, this is utterly unconscionable.”

Hoedspruit, Acornhoek and Bushbuckridge, near the Kruger National Park, mark out an area known to many Wits medical graduates who have trained and worked at Tintswalo Hospital or the rural clinics in the Limpopo/Mpumalanga region. The health care available there is still spread thinly over a large and impoverished population.

“We realised that the greatest shortage in rural health was qualified professionals. People, not structures. We needed to focus our efforts on bringing in medical professionals to help supplement the great rural skills shortage,” says Phillips.

Health care staff and volunteers under a tree

So in 2014 they set up the Tshemba Foundation, a privately funded initiative which brings volunteer health care professionals to the area to work and teach for periods of one to 12 months. The volunteers are accommodated on a nearby game reserve in beautiful surroundings and can enjoy all the uniquely South African tourist activities of the area during their stay. They work in the Tintswalo hospital or clinics, or the pioneering Hlokomela Women’s Centre, and share their expertise with local professionals.

Tshemba Foundation’s medical arm is run by Professor John Gear (MBBCh 1967 and honorary Doctor of Science in Medicine), former Director of the nearby Wits Rural Facility and a long-time leader in public health. 

“Personally, 2017 was a year of renewal and inspiration,” says Gear. “I have met new colleagues, renewed decades-old acquaintances and made new friends.

I’m blessed to have shared a part of life’s journey with passionate and caring people and reaffirmed my huge belief in the worth of service to those less fortunate than myself.”

In the past year there have been 25 volunteers, mostly doctors but also some specialised nurses. “All our volunteers have been very positive about the programme,” says Phillips. “They feel we are giving them an outlet to give back to the community. Many have been disassociated from rural medicine and are happy to reassociate.

“This is a special place with great needs,” he continues. “I have no doubt that everyone who volunteers with Tshemba will leave with an enriched experience.” 

It’s a story with no ending, always looking for more characters: the medical graduates who can add an unforgettable chapter to their lives.

Dental care for children

Volunteer Witsie Dr Maria Pestana (BDS 1985) spent six nights at Tshemba to help children in need of dental care.

“I feel very blessed to be able to help people. I knew that Tshemba might offer a special experience: to be able to help people in rural areas and enjoy a little bit of the bush. It’s a balance between the beauty of nature and the reality of life.”

A nearby clinic has dental equipment but no personnel trained to do restorative treatment, only extractions.

Dr Pestana and another volunteer spent time at a crèche in the area, screening children of about four years old. They saw about 460 children and about 80% needed restorative dental work. “These children have no hope of having any kind of surgical dentistry done because there is no system for that in place,” she said.

She is looking for help in setting up a dental project there. It will require equipment, material and qualified dentists who can upskill the local staff as well as perform restorative dental work.