By Mariska Barnard

I started my studies enrolled in the BPharm course, but realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do.  I wanted to journey with my patients and help them achieve health through nutrition.  I have a passion for prevention of disease as I don’t want anyone to go through long, tiresome treatments for any disease/illness.  Thus I decided to study dietetics, a way of treating patients with no side effects!

I studied dietetics at the wonderful North West University on the Potchefstroom campus and then completed my Master’s degree at Nelson Mandela University.  And finally it was time for my community service year.  I work in Bloemhof, a small town in North West, as a sub-district dietitian.  We are responsible for all the clinics in the sub-district.  We consult chronic patients, audit Road-to-Health booklets, do health talks, organise Vitamin A and deworming campaigns and much more.  Working in a sub-district setting you learn a lot about other programmes as well.

When I first arrived, I was nervous, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do the work and I was in a little town with my family 800 km away and I knew no one – probably the feeling of everyone on their first day.  The first challenge I experienced was thus a mental one, I was not prepared to do community work, I expected to be placed in a hospital as I just applied to hospitals, and wasn’t placed at one of my options.  I was negative about my placement and I felt lost.  But I was welcomed with open arms, everyone in our team is friendly and I have an amazing supervisor that is passionate about community dietetics.  I instantly admired her passion and my eyes opened up to all the possibilities of community work.  My mindset changed quickly!

This year I have learnt about the set-up of community dietetics, about the way in which our community lives and how to adapt in unsuspected circumstances.

Tips for others walking the same path:

Help where you can:  This year we helped other programmes with their campaigns and then COVID-19 happened.  Now we screen the community and do contact tracing.  This not only teaches you a lot, but it also builds your character.

Always be ready to learn:  I once asked my supervisor to sit in while I counselled a newly diagnosed diabetic, and it was the best thing I could have done!  When I was done counselling I asked her if I missed something, and she started talking to the patient, using some Tswana words that I did not know yet, and describing some practices in different ways, using easier words.  I learnt so much in just five minutes!

Never stop fighting for your profession:  Sometimes you won’t understand why staff members don’t listen when you ask them to do the right thing.  Accepting that behaviour can’t be changed instantly will save you a lot of frustration.  Rather go back and ask again or do training.  Showing them that you won’t back down makes the difference!

I want to encourage you to be open to the journey ahead and to accept the challenges. We are all stronger than we think and capable of extraordinary things!