Dietetics might have been my plan B, but it turned out to be the (B)est plan yet!
By Carmyn Gast
Nutrition has been known to play a key part in good health since the time of ancient Greeks, with Hippocrates famously writing “Let thy food be thy medicine, thy medicine be thy food” in the 5th century BC. However, the profession of dietetics itself is relatively young, having only been put in the forefront of patient care by Florence Nightingale and Alexis Soyer during the Crimean War in the 19th century. And it was only in 1974 in South Africa that the Health Professions Act officialised Dietetics as a profession.
So being a dietitian means that you’re also a pioneer in this profession – an exciting but sometimes frightening experience. Which is exactly what I felt like when I walked into the very rural district hospital in KwaZulu Natal on the first day of my community service year. As the only dietitian in the hospital, I was immediately given all of the responsibilities of running an entire Dietetics Department. From consulting with and managing all the in-patients and out-patients, to budgeting and controlling all the nutritional feed stock, to auditing the hospital kitchen and the surrounding clinics, to supervising and assisting the Nutrition Advisors (something unique to KwaZulu Natal), to doing seemingly never-ending administration tasks and statistics, to training fellow health care professionals on nutrition, to advocating for patients’ nutritional health at meetings, to learning the local isiZulu language to be able to communicate with patients – there was (and still is) always something more to do and something more to learn.
The most important thing I have learned thus far is to always remember your heart. The nature of our job is to deal with people, and people are extremely complex and they often only encounter us when they’re not feeling well. Unfortunately the public healthcare system is under immense pressure in our country so most health care professionals only spend a handful of minutes with each patient before moving on to the next patient. So I consider it a privilege that, as a dietitian, I get to spend more time with patients. It gives me great joy to be able to sit down, talk with and really get to know my patients. After all, food and nutrition is such a personal thing – it gives you a real understanding of a person and their life. And this enables you to meaningfully and effectively help a patient to reach and maintain their optimal nutritional status. And a healthy happy patient makes for a very happy heart.
Sometimes the importance of dietitians is undermined and poorly understood, but as pioneers, it is up to us to continually show and prove our worth as a profession. And hopefully sometime in the near future the rest of the world will catch up and wake up to the most important fact that we already know – that food is life. In the meantime, let’s show them how it’s done!
Carmyn had the wonderful initiative to take a photo and add a caption each day of her Community Service Year to document the real and ‘unfiltered’ journey. See more on Intstagram @BecomingAnRD.