This Women's Month, we say thank you to Dr Veena John, a Discovery Foundation Award recipient whose decision to become a paediatrician is now improving the lives of children in communities in the Eastern Cape, her home province.
Dr Veena John works as a paediatric consultant in the ICU at Frere Hospital in East London. At the time of writing in 2020, she is busy completing her MMed degree in paediatrics with the help of a Discovery Foundation Award. Her research focuses on HIV prevalence in newborn babies with a very low birth weight.
Dr John was born in Matatiele, a small town in the mountains of the Eastern Cape. Her father, a mathematics and science teacher, inspired her love of research. She finished school at King Edward High School in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape and studied medicine at the University of Cape Town.
"Paediatrics captured my heart early"
Dr John says she knew early on that she wanted to be a paediatrician. "It was during my fifth year that there was a measles outbreak in Cape Town. I was on rotation at the Somerset Hospital when they suddenly needed to open up extra beds and wards to cope with the influx of patients. My clinical partners and I looked after this ward, and although it was incredibly challenging, it was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. I never looked back after that," she says.
"I embraced paediatric rotation during my internship and spent a whole year in the paediatrics department during my community-service year," she adds.
She says being a paediatrician can be tough at times, but she has absolutely no regrets in choosing this field. "Children are fun, playful, sincere, honest and very trusting, and that just makes me have no regrets. Yes, being a paediatrician is difficult - especially as a registrar. Days can be very rough; calls can be rougher, and there are tears and sleepless nights. But it's all worth it, because we want to do whatever we can for this little life, no matter how hard it is."
And yes, it's sometimes tough not to get emotionally involved, she admits. But all you can do is stay calm and do the best you can.
HIV and newborns with low birth weight - an under-researched topic
Dr John has always had a passion for small babies. That's why she decided to do research on newborns with a low birth weight. She confirms that little information was available on the topic, but with the help of the Discovery Foundation grant, the project has been a success. The South African Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health has accepted her research for publication.
Dr John says that to grow as a clinician, it's important that she is able to do and interpret research. "This award has also encouraged my colleagues to be more interested in research." She adds that the findings of her project will help the hospital and the region determine where to focus their resources to achieve their goal of eliminating HIV in paediatrics.
A family of clinician researchers
Dr John married her university classmate, Dr Jeff John, at the end of her final year of studying. They moved to East London together in 2010 for their registrar training. He is now a consultant in the Urology Department at Frere Hospital and also received a Discovery Foundation Award in 2020. "I draw inspiration from many of my colleagues and I would say my husband's love for research has definitely encouraged me to enjoy it," she adds.
"We have two beautiful children. Aiden, our son, is six years old and in Grade 1. Our daughter, Alyssa, is three years old and attending preschool. We love spending time together as a family and look forward to Friday night movies," she concludes.
This article was created for the 2020 Discovery Foundation Awards and has been edited for the Discovery Magazine. It's previously been published in The Herald.
About the Discovery Foundation
Since 2006, the Discovery Foundation has invested over R256 million in grants to support academic medicine through research, development and training medical specialists in South Africa.
The Discovery Foundation is an independent trust with a clear focus - to strengthen the healthcare system - by making sure that more people have access to specialised healthcare services. Each year, the Discovery Foundation gives five different awards to outstanding individual and institutional awardees in the public healthcare sector.
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