Providing crucial clinic services

* Shawcos dietitians, from left, Megan Ropertz, Shelli Marx, and Michaela Schultz.

Hout Bay’s poorer communities suffer from a lack of health care, but UCT’s Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) hopes to remedy that.

Once a month on a Saturday morning, Shawco’s health division runs a free paediatric clinic at the Sentinel Primary School in Hanberg.

The clinic is run entirely by volunteers, including doctors, dietitians, audiologists, occupational and speech therapists, and UCT students from the various medical and health-science fields.

All the students are supervised by qualified medical practitioners and doctors.

Last Saturday, the Sentinel News stopped by the clinic to see how things are run.

Shawco’s Hout Bay area coordinator and resident dietitian, Shelli Marx, explained the important role the clinic plays in this community.

“The first Shawco clinic in Hout Bay was in 2006 at a small crèche. Since then, we’ve expanded our services to general, dietetic, audiologist, speech and occupational therapist screenings. We work with Victoria Hospital if there are serious cases, but patients get the full deal at our clinic.

“The child gets screened by the students and examined by a qualified doctor. If anything serious gets picked up, we’ll refer them to Hout Bay Harbour Clinic or Victoria Hospital.”

Ms Marx, who describes herself as “just a humble dietitian”, said Shawco provided crucial services for those with limited resources.

“I can’t donate money, but I gladly donate my time. Many of the people in these communities cannot access basic healthcare. A while back the University of the Western Cape’s dentistry students joined us, and our clinic was busy for the entire Saturday. Most people in the Hangberg and Imizamo Yethu areas don’t have the means to see a dentist, so we’re hoping the dentistry school joins us again, since the need for their services is so great.”

Before the Shawco volunteers head to Hout Bay, they prepare their fully kitted medical examination trailers. Apart from the medical staff, they also have a registered dispensing nurse who oversees the on-location clinic pharmacy, everything free of cost.

According to Cameron Joseph, third-year medical student and co-deputy head of Shawco’s paediatric clinic, the clinic’s main function is preventative screenings.

“We screen all the kids for developmental, health, and rehab abnormalities. If possible, the kids get seen by all the specialities.

“We focus on prevention screening, because the biggest advantage is to catch an issue beforehand and intervene quickly.”

Mr Joseph said preventative screening could help parents avoid higher medical costs later on.

“We do a general examination on every child, even if there isn’t any current crisis. The point is to avoid illnesses. We buffer this by also educating parents on diarrhoea, tuberculosis and skin infections because that is what can kill a child.

“Health care in our country is very expensive, but preventative care such as deworming kids at six months old, and making sure they get vitamin A, and other necessary vitamins for their growth, is free at all day-clinics. And it is free for all children up to age 5, even non-South African citizens. These low cost measures, can prevent major high-cost issues.”

Asked why he volunteered his time at Shawco, Mr Joseph said: “The best way to learn is by doing and gaining experience. But, most importantly, while everyone has the right to health care, not everyone has access to it. So we make it easier by coming to the patients.”

Aphiwe Masinyana, a fourth-year occupational therapy student and the paediatric clinic’s other co-deputy head, said educating parents was a big part of their work.

“Parents don’t always understand how important a child’s functioning is, and a child’s main function is to play and to learn. If they have any developmental problems, they can’t do these things and it affects the way they do other things like how they play with their friends. This is why we educate parents on preventative screening. Historically and culturally, ‘play’ is a leisure thing, but actually play is very important for a child.

“This is where they develop a lot of their skills such as social skills, how to handle conflict, muscle strength, and others. By seeing how they play, we can determine if they are functioning optimally for their age group. We also provide parents with a checklist to track their child’s development and tips on how to address it at home. If it’s a serious issue, like cerebral palsy, we’ll refer them to Victoria Hospital.”

Ms Marx said the screenings also helped them determine whether a child needed to be placed in a special-needs school.

“We try to identify cognitive and developmental issues before school age because if they do present serious issues, we need to place them in special-needs schools. If they get into regular schools, that’s when they get lost in the system.

“I’ll take the parents to their first appointment at the hospital to make sure they get into the habit and realise the necessity and urgency of getting the kids help.”

Mr Joseph asked parents to trust their instincts when it came to their children’s health.

“Often when I’m examining a patient, I’ll notice the parents had a gut feeling about the kid being sick. But some parents think it will just go away. My advice to them is trust that feeling and seek help immediately. Don’t suppress your instincts until it’s too late.”

One of the mothers at the clinic, Bongiwe Zazela, thanked the Shawco volunteers, saying: “My son, Sandiso, 5, had a middle-ear infection and was very sick. I waited at the local clinic for an entire day and couldn’t get help. I took him to Victoria Hospital where they only looked at his kidneys and couldn’t find anything wrong. Then I brought him to Shawco, and they correctly diagnosed him. I’m so thankful for Shelli and the doctors here. I’ve told all the moms in my community to bring their children here.”

Shawcodoesn’t only focus on paediatric health, but also provides help with health promotion, women’s health, men’s health, and adult health.

Onceamonth, it has a night clinic for adults, seeing up to 15 patients at two locations – Sentinel Primary School in Hangberg and the sports field in Imizamo Yethu.

Shawco is a student-run, non-profit community outreach organisation and is funded by various big enterprises as well as UCT alumni and other private donors.

To learn more about its work, visit shawco.org