We chatted to Neil Stephen, Chief Dietitian at Addington Hospital in Durban, to find out why he became a dietitian, what he loves about his work and what the challenges are:
Why did you become a Registered Dietitian?
I developed an interest in nutrition when someone at the gym suggested I should see a dietitian to improve my performance. I asked my parents if they knew of any dietitians and they told me that my cousin Nathan was one. Later I decided to change from a general BSc to BSc Dietetics. I was going to pursue a career in sports nutrition… which is the last thing I am interested in now. To my surprise I was one of very few males in the class, I had no idea that dietitians were mostly female!
What do you enjoy most about the work you do? What are the most satisfying moments?
I have quite a diverse range of areas I really love. Top of the list is child health, followed by critical care, maternal health, student training and lastly, monitoring and evaluation of health systems and programmes (I’m a bit of a nerd). I work daily with patients who have very little or nothing. These patients are so humble and appreciative of any assistance you give them, whether its counselling or treatment. The most satisfying moments are when I bump into moms with their young children or babies, who stop me, and they proudly tell me they are still breastfeeding. Another is when an acutely ill malnourished child improves over night and I know that nutrition has greatly contributed to the positive outcome. Finally, its awesome speaking to previous interns and finding out they are succeeding at what they do.
What has been your career highlight?
Well I started to collect data on every patient I treated when I started working. I had a good amount of information per patient. I put together a cool spreadsheet in excel to do my monthly stats for me, and eventually got my whole department on to it. After a few years I decided to study further and used the information I had been collecting over the years. So a highlight was definitely that I was selected to present my research for the MEC and Head of the KZN Department of Health. Being selected really made me feel like I was valued and was making a contribution to the bigger health picture.
What are the most challenging aspects of your career?
I think that for me its been a long journey of challenges and realisations which have grown me into the dietitian I am today. Working in the public sector, I experience first hand the outcomes of social and economic issues that face the general population on a daily basis. It is heartbreaking to find that children are severely malnourished purely because they have a limited access to food. A large proportion of patients of all ages are referred for HIV related problems which are often hard to manage and outcomes may be poor. I need to mention that I love pregnant moms, children, and critically ill patients because they almost always accept advice and are compliant – the challenge is the patient who is resistant to change, because they don’t embrace the importance of lifestyle and dietary change.
How do you cope after a day of nutrition disaster and bad eating choices?
Hahaha, I usually just take a nap.
What are the three things that you think people should stop saying when they meet a dietitian?
- How can I lose the fat on my….(insert body part!!)???
- Isn’t there some kind of a pill or something I can take??
- I don’t eat carbs.
What should clients look out for when deciding which dietitian to work with?
Dietitians are all equally qualified to treat any patient presented to them. If you have a specific need, some dietitians will list their special interests, one of which you may be looking for.
What is your favourite dish and your favourite treat food?
- Favourite dish – Butter Chicken Curry with garlic butter naan bread
- Favourite treat food – chocolate mousse (I can eat it by the litre)
Read more about the career of a registered dietitian: Is a career as a dietitian for you?