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After a Personal Health Crisis Nearly Derails Her Career, This South African Nurse Returns to Public Healthcare to Care for High-Risk Patients

In a community facing health worker shortages among other socioeconomic challenges, Marleze Baartman is often caring for patients in medical emergency situations.
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Marleze Baartman has wanted to be a nurse since she was a little girl. “Before I had even started school, I remember seeing a uniformed nurse come to visit the informal settlement where we lived and she looked like an angel to me. I thought to myself, ‘I want to be like her one day’.” 

Baartman started working as a nursing assistant in 1995, but initially life got in the way of her nursing ambitions. “I got married and it became harder to work, study and raise a family at the same time.” She found her way back to nursing school eventually, qualifying as a registered nurse in her native South Africa in 2013. 

The following year, life threw her another curveball. In 2014, Baartman was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The strain of working in a hospital was incompatible with her cancer recovery and she decided to quit nursing. However, a brief time at a desk job at a medical insurance company led her back to her true calling—working with patients. 

“I realized that life is short and so I needed to pursue my dreams,” says Baartman. “That became the turning point for me.” 

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Supported by the Johnson & Johnson Medical Education Fund, a bursary program funded by the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, she decided to go back to school to complete a Postgraduate Diploma in Advanced Midwifery and Neonatal Care from Stellenbosch University. The program was established in 2007 through the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) to address the shortage of specialized nurses in hospitals and clinics in South Africa. Nurses selected by IRR receive bursary funding to help them upskill their competencies, thereby improving health services in the country and reducing mortality rates. 

“The funding helped me immensely,” she says. “I started the course with no financial support, a husband and three children, a house and car that needed repairs, and school fees to pay. But I was determined to study so that I could move back into public healthcare. If it wasn’t for the bursary, I don’t think I would have been able to finish the course.” 

Receiving the diploma, Baartman says, has improved both her personal life and is helping her advance and thrive in her profession. “Because of that course, my family was able to move to a better neighborhood, my children could finish their studies in the best schools for them, and the shortage of advanced nurse-midwives means that my skills and knowledge are in high demand.”

Fighting for the health of her community

In early 2022, Baartman started working as a specialized nurse-midwife in the maternity unit at Karl Bremer Hospital in South Africa’s Western Cape caring for high-risk patients referred by community health workers across the wider community. Drug and alcohol use is also common amongst Baartman’s patients. “There are a lot of socioeconomic issues which are having a negative impact on local neighborhoods, including affecting their ability to access healthcare,” she says.

Her community also faces healthcare staff shortages, which means many people, including pregnant women, don’t often get the care they need at the right time, resulting in medical emergencies. “Doctors rely on competent nurse-midwives who will be able to pick up on emergencies early on so that the proper interventions can take place,” says Baartman. “A number of times in my career I’ve assisted doctors in emergency situations such as resuscitations. There is a lot of responsibility on your shoulders so you have to learn to anticipate and listen to your gut instinct.”

While Baartman always tries to put the needs of her patients first, she admits that she—as well as many of her colleagues—often feels underappreciated. “I wish people knew how hard we fight for them,” she says. “We take the work so personally and really fight for the people in our care. Even when there is a negative outcome, we will be fighting until the very end, using all the resources at our disposal.”

Ultimately, though, making a difference in people’s lives keeps her motivated. Looking forward to turning 50 next year, Baartman shows no signs of slowing down. “The most rewarding thing for me is the fact that I can make such a positive impact on my patients. Our profession is so needed.”