Meet Vhutshilo Netshituni, the first black paediatric oncologist in SA
After qualifying as the first black paediatric oncologist in South Africa last year, a Limpopo-based doctor is eager to help children beat cancer.
Vhutshilo Netshituni, 36, works at the paediatric oncology unit of Pietersburg Hospital in Polokwane, which specialises in childhood cancer treatment. Sowetan spoke to her on a visit to the unit, which is the only one in the province.
Patients suffering from various types of cancer are referred to the unit from health facilities across Limpopo.
Born in Tshilafene village outside Thohoyandou, Netshituni discovered her love for the profession while visiting her cousin at a medical campus some years back.
"I saw all these people wearing white coats. From that day on I fell in love with medicine. All I wanted was to see myself helping people in a white coat," she said.
After Grade 12 in 1999, Netshituni pursued a medical degree at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (formerly Medunsa).
Her family had fallen on hard times after her father, who was the breadwinner, died, leaving Netshituni's mother Sophy to raise four children on her own.
"Even though life was different, my mom tried her best. In first year, my mom could only afford to give me registration money and that, for me, was enough. I didn't know how I was going to survive when I got there. All I wanted was to study medicine," she said.
While doing routine hospital visits as a student, Netshituni discovered she loved working with children, which influenced her decision to specialise in paediatrics.
She also got a chance to work briefly in the Polokwane oncology unit before she qualified as a paediatric oncologist at Stellenbosch University.
"What struck me was seeing those kids smiling regardless of what they were going through. That made me brave. It kept me going," she said.
Netshituni said the Limpopo unit has 30 beds and the province has an estimated 70 new patients a year.
"We are always full and it just shows you that we have a lot of kids who have cancer in the province. Many people still think that only adults get cancer, but we actually have a lot of children," she said.
Netshituni sees between 20 and 30 outpatients every Wednesday, who she said face many challenges including having to travel long distances for treatment and being stigmatised by their communities.
She said their survival rate for the last three years was 35%, which was low .
"Our survival rate compared to other provinces is very low because they come to us when it's advanced and there is nothing we can do," she said.
Netshituni said her dream is to run awareness campaigns.
"A big and beautiful oncology building would be a bonus for me," she said.