When Dr Liana Roodt realised women with breast cancer who depend on public healthcare often have to wait months for urgent treatment, she knew something needed to be done. Her solution is changing lives and restoring smiles, writes MARANA BRAND.
During her first years as a surgical medical officer at the now defunct GF Jooste public hospital in Manenberg, Cape Town, Dr Liana Roodt noticed how unbelievably long women diagnosed with breast cancer had to wait before receiving treatment or surgery when they were referred to Groote Schuur Hospital.
“To me that was unacceptable. I contacted people I had met during my GP year at Groote Schuur and one of the surgeons taught me how to do mastectomies. I did two or three a week at GF Jooste but hardly made a dent in the overall waiting list.”
Her search for a way to reduce the waiting time led to Liana teaming up with Prof. Lydia Cairncross, currently head of Groote Schuur’s breast and endocrine surgery unit, to do catch-up breast cancer surgeries on Saturdays when theatres were not in use – for free. From the outset all surgeons, anaesthetists and assistants volunteered their time but even so, each operation costs about R4,000. Breast surgery requires a team of five to seven people and if it’s complex, it can take five hours. “I commandeered all and sundry on my mailing list to support the project. I also went to my ‘wine club’ and we held cocktail evenings to raise funds.”
It was during such an event in 2010 that Liana thought her ‘little project’ should get a name. “I wanted it to be something happy, positive and pink – and we should be able to name a drink after it. With our first fundraiser we sold lovely pink flamingo cocktails!” Word of mouth and ‘blessing after blessing’ made the rest possible; that year they cleared the overflow of three theatre lists.
On a roll
What Liana thought would be a once-off project morphed into a huge venture. “When I saw it worked, I realised this was a model that should be pursued. The problem wasn’t going away and the need was growing. I couldn’t do nothing.”
Since Project Flamingo was registered as an NGO in 2011, its volunteers have done more than 700 breast cancer surgeries. Their selfless work has grown beyond medical professionals at Groote Schuur to include clinical volunteers at Parow’s Tygerberg Hospital and Livingstone Hospital in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth). Liana plans to expand to George next and would love to go countrywide.
Every hospital has a clinical team and it divides the surgical overflow among its members. Liana has high praise for the doctors leading the teams, as they also have to see to treatment before and after surgery. “Patients should be in a system where they can receive continuous care and complete their treatment. That’s why permanent, knowledgeable staff at hospitals with oncology units are so necessary.”
More than merely surgery
Volunteering for surgery doesn’t involve only pitching up and scrubbing in for the operation; the administration and co-ordination take a huge chunk of Liana’s time. And Project Flamingo fulfils other needs. “When I worked at GF Jooste, some of the patients arrived with nothing,” remembers Liana. With the help of volunteers, like her right-hand woman Michelle Rennie, pamper packs were put together for them. These comprised bathroom essentials and other treats “to make them feel that they still matter as a woman”. Now all Project Flamingo patients receive pamper packs – more than 200 per month and more than 6,000 to date. “It sounds like such a simple gesture but it makes a massive difference. It helps oncology nurses make an immediate connection with the patients when they distribute these packs.”
Nor does it end there. “Last year during lockdown, many women arrived for their chemo on empty stomachs. So we put food parcels together. Now wonderful people and friends are helping to make up the parcels, 50 to 80 per month.”
Project Flamingo has also donated two sonar machines to Groote Schuur’s breast unit to improve diagnoses and even pays two doctors a small fee to see 10 to 20 more patients per week to meet the ever-increasing demand.
At Livingstone Hospital, the diagnostic clinics were closed last year and the influx of patients became unmanageable. Project Flamingo stepped in and six doctors volunteered to assist with the backlog, shaving about 200 patients off the waiting list. “I’m working with phenomenal people. Volunteering their time is so precious,” says Liana.
All in a day’s work
She splits her time between her private practice in Somerset West, Groote Schuur and Project Flamingo. Her first love is surgery but she focuses on breast cancer surgery so she gets to know her patients. “Surgery can become mechanical and surgeons seldom have a meaningful relationship with their patients. I share a journey with these women for five years or more. I learn so much from them; courage beyond any challenge. They give me perspective, resilience.”
Liana has a diploma in integrated medicine and in her private practice she takes a holistic approach that encompasses emotional health, nutrition, exercise and alternative therapies as well as the traditional chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. “Everyone has their own healing journey,” she says.
Following a holistic approach is also what sustains her in an often emotionally draining career. “Some days it’s quite difficult to keep the suffering at bay, although I’d get worried if things didn’t upset me. I decompress regularly, meditate, read, burn candles and essential oils. The concept ‘to take care, you have to take care of yourself’ is important.”
Liana hopes Project Flamingo will one day have a national footprint or that the model will take off elsewhere. “We are doing full-on damage control and the system depends on us. If we stop, it will have a massive impact. So I hope Project Flamingo can be sustainable, that our volunteer base grows and there will be enough money.”
How to get involved
There are various ways to assist, in addition to volunteering precious time. Donate funds to sustain the project or products for the pamper packs (see the website for guidance) and food parcels. Also spread the word about Project Flamingo, to encourage more donations and volunteers.