Meet the Dietitian: Community Service Series

Challenge… Accepted!

By Liezel Engelbrecht

I am probably not your typical community service dietitian: I am 37 years old. At 32, after nearly a decade in the media industry, I gave up my career as a content editor in order to pursue a new goal: to make a contribution in the field of preventative healthcare.

I was probably a little less apprehensive than first-time careerists going into my community service year (I am currently placed at a provincial hospital in Cape Town). It thus came as somewhat of a surprise when I found it challenging to adjust to the new routine, my new role and establishing new goals.

Let me start with the routine. Initially, I was thrilled to be able to start at 6:30 if I preferred. Getting up early in exchange for a more leisurely afternoon sounded like a good deal. I didn’t, however, take into account how emotionally taxing being a hospital dietitian would be. Even though I now technically had a large chunk of the afternoon to myself, I was so tired from the adrenalin of the day that I didn’t feel like my usual gym class or an afternoon run. Almost four months in, I have now adjusted my working times slightly, but I’m still working on striking the right balance to optimize my energy levels while building in some much needed “me”-time.

Secondly, the new role was an adjustment. A month before I started at the hospital, the chief dietitian contacted me to share that she’s had a major health setback, and would only be coming in intermittently for the first three months. Needless to say, I was a bit anxious, as this meant I wouldn’t have a supervisor or mentor. Luckily, this angst soon dissipated. She had arranged for the previous (very competent) community service dietitian to help out in her absence, who was extremely patient in showing me the ropes and guiding me through the hospital systems. Now that my supervisor is back, I am using the opportunity to soak up as much of her 25 years of experience as possible.

Which brings me to the next challenge I experienced: setting new goals for myself. It’s not called “community service” for nothing. In my final (internship year) studying at Stellenbosch University, we got a taste of working in various practical settings, such as hospitals, clinics and in rural areas. The hospital environment did thus not feel uncomfortable. However, in the community service year, your focus shifts from being a good student to being 100% focused on serving patients eight hours a day, every day. And serving takes up a lot of mental and physical energy! My goals thus changed from expecting results and feedback following projects, assignments, and exams, to attempt giving quality service to each patient, every day. Though this goal sounds obvious, it really is challenging to be fully present and equally enthusiastic and thorough with every patient you see, especially since you might do counseling for the same type of conditions and work out requirements for similar types of patients repeatedly. The end result will however only be rewarding if you manage your own expectations.

In conclusion, I encourage all prospective community service dietitians to see this year for what it is: an opportunity to get a better understanding of how the public health system works; an opportunity to become really good at something (you can become an expert at diabetes education, breastfeeding counseling, or any other area where you have an interest in), and, most importantly, the opportunity to serve.

Whether you love or hate this year, one thing is certain: you will grow.

More tools that work for me:

  • Respect the system, but don’t lose your enthusiasm. Fresh eyes are great for spotting areas of possible improvement. And if you have an open-minded chief dietitian (like I have), your ideas or suggestions might just get used and have a long-lasting positive effect.
  • Smile (even if you’re in a terrible mood). This makes you appear friendly. And if someone smiles back, you’ll instantly feel better.
  • Ask for help. It’s okay not to know how everything works initially, or what all the diagnoses and abbreviations mean. You’ll get better.
  • Accept (and face) your mistakes. I had many (I lost a scale, measuring tape and calipers in the wards, all in my second month!). You can only learn from them.
  • It’s okay to be affected if you lose a patient. Make sure you can talk to someone. It also helped me to talk to more experienced health professionals about their coping mechanisms.
  • Don’t neglect yourself. If you’re not in a good space mentally, chances are this negative energy will follow you around.

If you are a community service dietitian and would like to share your story, pop Abby Courtenay an email at with the subject line ‘Meet the Dietitian- Community Service Series’.

ADSA, the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, is one of the country’s professional
organizations for registered dietitians. It is a registered non-profit organization served by qualified volunteers. The Association represents and plays a vital role in developing the dietetic profession so as to contribute towards the goal of achieving optimal nutrition for all South Africans. Through its network of ten branches, ADSA provides dietitians with the opportunity to meet and network with other professionals in their provinces. Through its comprehensive Continuing Professional Development (CPD) system, ADSA supports dietitians in meeting their mandatory on-going learning, which is essential to maintain their registration status with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). Visit: