Dr Margie Venter completed her training as a Clinical Oncologist in 2004 at Stellenbosch University (Tygerberg hospital). After working in both state and private practice, she left the Vergelegen Cancercare practice in Somerset West at the end of 2013.
“I needed to recharge and recalibrate, “ she says. “I had the sense that there was another role for me to play. And essentially I figured out it was to be a knowledgeable companion on the serious illness journey.” This was a role she had played for both her parents and a close friend who died of cervical cancer at a young age. “It still haunts me”, she admits. “She was far away and had little support. That was real suffering and felt helpless. She needed someone who could help sort and make sense of the medical information provided, understanding what it meant practically so that she could make better decisions for herself. Such a medical companion would also help to manage serious or niggly symptoms which eat away at quality of life. And support the family! That, I discovered, is some of what we do in palliative care.”
“Sugar coating is not helpful. People need honest information…”
This meant a lot of additional training. “I did not have the words and skill to have these conversations. Sugar coating is not helpful. People need honest information and we need to support meaningful hope. I needed to learn this skill, like a surgeon would an appendectomy.” Margie completed her diploma in Palliative Medicine at UCT in 2016 and did additional skills training at Harvard Medical School between 2016 and 2019.
“I have finally found my niche! I love my work. I feel honoured to be allowed into the space of patients and family living with serious illness, helping them navigate their journey authentically. I like cutting through the nonsense, getting to what matters most.”
Lack of funding is a barrier to scaling access to palliative care.
One of the barriers in scaling access to palliative care is that of funding. Whether in state or private practice, funding is poor. This means that few providers are able to deliver this vital service in an economically sustainable way. There are few to no palliative care posts for doctors available in the state.
“We needed a united voice.”
Not one to be put off by a challenge, Margie realized that a united approach would be needed to educate and advocate on the role of palliative care. “Doctors play an important role in delivering quality palliative care within a team. We needed a united voice to say that.” After a palliative care conference in Johannesburg in 2016, she started collecting names and numbers of others trained in palliative medicine and eventually she became co-founder of Palprac, the Association of Palliative Practitioners of South Africa.
“There is a lot of work to do in integrating palliative care into all disciplines of medicine. I have learnt in the last 3 years that Rome really was not built in a day, but I still wish it was,” she says wryly.runs
In the meantime, Margie runs in a private palliative care clinic called Enfold in Stellenbosch, offering palliative care to not only cancer patients. She serves on the Stellenbosch Hospice board and also volunteers her time there clinically. “My 3 boys, aged between 10 and 15, all know what palliative care is. I think that is a very good investment for who knows when!”