A Generational Commitment to South Africa
Jan 23, 2014
Woodrow Wilson School
The 15 doctors on staff at Zithulele Hospital, 40 miles from Mqanduli, a town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, are responsible for an area of nearly 130,000 people. But there are only 127 active beds in the hospital.
“These people directly depend on us,” said Dr. Karl le Roux, visiting lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School and one of the four core long-term doctors on staff. “The need for help is enormous.”
And that need continues to grow. When Karl and his wife Sally (who is also a doctor) joined another doctor couple, Ben and Taryn Gaunt, at the deeply rural South African hospital, they promised five years of their service. Seven-plus years later, they're still there and don’t see themselves leaving any time soon.
“If you told me when we got here that we’d have 10 doctors, I’d think we’d be able to run the hospital brilliantly without any hassles,” Karl said. “We now have 15 doctors and we’re barely hanging on. As one service improves, the need for another expands, and patients keep coming.”
Since Karl and Sally joined the hospital, the number of professional staff at the hospital has increased from 9 to about 32, including dieticians, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, an audiologist, speech therapist and a dentist. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have sprung up around the hospital, including the Jabulani Rural Health Foundation, which was founded by Karl, Sally, Ben and Taryn to support the hospital and the community it serves, as well as Axium, an educational NGO which supports high school learners and teachers with math, science and English enrichment.
Part of the inspiration for Karl’s career path was close to home – his mother, Dr. Ingrid le Roux, MPP ’01 and former WWS lecturer, co-founded the Philani Maternal Child Health and Nutrition Project in 1979. Committed to improving the health and wellbeing of women and children in the poor townships on the outskirts of Cape Town, Philani is a community-based NGO where Ingrid currently serves as medical director.
Philani’s philosophy to “help mothers to help themselves” is the basis of one of their most important programs, Mentor Mothers. The program, which includes home-based rehabilitation of malnourished children through the input of “positive deviant” mothers from the community, was started in the townships around Cape Town in the early 2000’s has now expanded to the Zithulele area.
Karl’s work at Zithulele Hospital has facilitated the integration of the hospital to the clinics and community through Mentor Mothers. He said Mentor Mothers has been of great assistance to the hospital, as they follow up with malnourished children at home and try to identify children at risk before they reach the hospital with severe malnutrition.
“In many cases, unhealthy women and struggling mothers in villages trust other women who are from their community and whose kids are healthy and doing well,” Karl said. "This program provides them with those support systems going forward and takes family health and nutrition directly into people’s homes."
While Ingrid and Karl are both committed to helping struggling mothers and children, the nature of their work differs. Ingrid has been working in the context of a community-based NGO for the past 35 years, while Karl works as a general hospital physician, dealing with everything from HIV, tuberculosis, stabbings, pregnant mothers, malnourished children to patients with diabetes and hypertension. His passion, though, is maternal and child health.
“I found it to be much more interesting and satisfying to be able to perform, for example, a caesarian section in the morning, rush off to resuscitate a baby, then amputate someone’s toe, and finally visit a sick HIV patient, than focus solely on tonsils or ears,” he said. “You don’t always feel like you’re the master of one thing, but you get the experience in dealing with a broad range of issues.”
Despite being 7,800 miles away, the Wilson School also is actively involved in Philani. During the fall of 2013, Karl shared his field experiences while teaching an undergraduate Policy Task Force on South Africa. Outside the classroom, he serves as a visiting research scholar at WWS’ Center for Health and Wellbeing, where on behalf of the Zithulele Births Follow Up Study, he tracks the health of 480 mothers and their babies to understand, amongst other things, how feeding behaviors impact health. Christina Laurenzi ’13 is assisting him on the ground.
In addition, Nathan Scovronick, lecturer and associate dean for undergraduate education, and Stanley Katz, lecturer with the rank of professor and director of WWS’ Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, serve on the board of Philani Fund USA, which raises money for Philani Maternal.
Despite his positive experience at WWS, Karl said it’s very difficult to forget about patients who are sick back home. He recently returned to South Africa to continue his work at the hospital and with Philani.
“I’m very appreciative about being able to bring my experience and academic interfaces closer together at the Woodrow Wilson School, but I’m excited to go back and apply some of the academic research I’ve done back on the ground.”
Photos courtesy of Karl and Sally le Roux.