Dr Vanga Siwisa from Taung Hospital was given the award by the Rural Doctors Association, the SA Academy of Family Practice and the SA Medical Association.
Rudasa’s Dr Elma de Vries said that Siwisa had been chosen because ‘his is such an inspirational story’.
‘He saw a need out there in Taung in the North West and left his private practice to go and serve a community out in the middle of nowhere,’ said De Vries.
However the self-effacing Siwisa says the award was not for him, but for the staff at hospital’s HIV/AIDS clinic who have put in ‘long hours of overtime’.
In less than two years, Siwisa and his under-staffed team have managed to put almost 2 000 people on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment.
Patients come to Siwisa’s clinic from as far as Kuruman, 300km away in the Northern Cape.
Initially, Siwisa was the only doctor at the clinic when it was established in 2004 but he has since been joined by another doctor.
Siwisa, who went into exile in 1963 and qualified as a doctor in Nigeria, returned to South Africa in 1989. Initially, he couldn’t work in the country as the apartheid government regarded him as a citizen of the Transkei.
However, once he got a South African ID book in 1990, he worked at government hospitals before setting up a comfortable private practice in Randfontein.
‘But I saw many people dying of AIDS who should not have died. The government was saying that HIV and AIDS are not related. I felt bad about it, really, and I wanted to learn as much as possible,’ said Siwisa.
‘I believed that antiretrovirals worked. I did courses on HIV treatment and looked for the first opportunity I could to work with people with HIV.’
His chance came when Taung Hospital advertised for a doctor to establish an HIV/AIDS treatment clinic in mid-2004. Siwisa applied and got the job.
He and project manager JK Letsoalo started the clinic from scratch, and had it accredited as an ARV rollout site in November 2004.
But Taung was a far cry from confortable Randfontein.
‘The people know I call this place Burundi,’ laughs Siwisa. ‘There is one main road with cattle and goats, one mall. My bank doesn’t even have a branch here. I must drive 25km to Hartswater to do banking.’
But seeing the effect of the treatment on his patients has been Siwisa’s reward.
‘There has been a beautiful improvement. People who came here on stretchers and wheelchairs have recovered. They came here dying but now they are well. It has been beautiful.’
In the first few months of prescribing ARVs, however, Siwisa was terrified.
‘I was so scared because it was the first time I was giving out ARVs. But I found that the side-effects are not as horrible as had been said. To begin with, people will tell you about bad dreams, or rash or vomiting. But after a while they get used to the drugs.’
He has only lost four patients since starting the ARV programme and says that living in ‘Burundi’ is worth it simply to see how his patients are thriving.
‘I think I am in love with this place. If they manage to sort out the under-staffing, I will stay,’ says Siwisa.