Celebrating St Dunstan's Women

It is a beautiful pink sunset in a remote corner of the Drakensberg. Following a St Dunstan’s reunion in Kwa-Zula Natal, my war-blinded husband and I took time to go and stay with friends who then worked with KZN Wildlife.

To hike the necessary 5km along a mountain path to reach a secluded trout-stocked dam, Don and I used our fishing rods to hike in a truck pulling a trailer style. There is not a breath of wind, and the mountain and reeds are perfectly mirrored on the still surface of the dam. With my first cast, I hook a rainbow trout and with some help, Don lands one of these princely fish too.

As a family-focused person, I am open-minded and willing to learn skills usually associated with men. Give me a hook and line, and I’ll tie a fisherman’s knot. Coming from the Great Karoo I knew nothing about fishing, Don had to teach me how to put on bait and determine the depth of your line in the water. But you can give me a hunting rifle and three young boys, and I will teach them how to hunt.  I am willing to get my hands dirty by showing the boys how to clean fish and how to slaughter a bird and take out the intestines of an animal after hunting.

I am willing to be the sole vehicle driver in the family and the only one that is mobile to shop for clothes, fishing hooks and all the rest. I have been using Pick-and-Pay online shopping for a very long time and they are very efficient, it saves me a lot of time not having to drive to the shops. With two of the boys being teenagers, they are eating increasingly more, and keeping the cupboards full is in itself a challenge.

Regarding hardware shopping I have however given up on figuring out the difference between the different types of bolts and screws – it drives me nuts! For enough times it has led to a quarrel between me Don, so I just hand the printed list provided by Don to the nearest salesperson…

I was 27 years of age in the year 2000, when, on top of Table Mountain, Don popped the big question. I knew that it will not be matrimony where husband and wife fulfill the time-honoured gender roles society associates with men and women, but I answered ‘yes’.

What prepared me for pulling my weight and being willing to bring my proverbial pound of flesh to the table, was I think my upbringing on a sheep farm in the Great Karoo, between Sutherland and Fraserburgh. Also boarding school throughout my primary- and high school, as well as a year in the army.

As a role model, I had an entrepreneur mum who in the 1980s got permission from the then ‘Coloured’ Department of education to start a school and boarding house for farm kids on our family farm. This saw many farm labourer children, coming from homes where neither the mother nor father could read, now obtain these basic tools to better themselves in life and many of them have since reached special heights.

Over and above being a full-time teacher on the farm, mum also made and sold fancy clothes, start the first guest house in the Karoo, as well as being the founder of Fraserburgh’s School Theatre festival, which is held annually up to this day.

In my career, after my year of being shunted around by short-fused corporals (I was selected to attend the South African Army Women's College in George), I obtained my nursing degree at Stellenbosch university. I then worked a stone's throw from our current house, at Helderberg hospital for a year after which I decided to spread my wings. I worked as a registered nurse through an agency nurse all across Greater London for two years. It was a time of hard work, but I also used the opportunity to travel around Europe and Scandinavia.  Coming back to South Africa towards the end of 1999, I met Don through mutual friends. I then enrolled at Stellenbosch university to do my Honours degree in Intensive Care nursing. For a year I stayed in Pinelands, and I worked at Vincent Palotti hospital.

With my new degree under my belt and having just gotten married to Don in 2001, I worked in the intensive care for 7 years. I was then promoted to an office job, which meant no more 12-hour shifts in the ICU. I was now the Clinical Risk Manager for Mediclinic Vergelegen hospital in Somerset West for 12 years. During this time, we were blessed with three lovely boys. I also completed a higher diploma in Nursing Management through Stellenbosch at this time. I remember going to bed early, then I studied between midnight and 2 am and went back to sleep again. I did this for about 4 nights per week and I completed my course with a cum laude.

I initiated many quality improvement initiatives at the hospital at the time and I was honoured to be awarded a Discovery Health Quality Improvement award for being one of the top 3 winners in the 2014 annual awards. With the prize money I received, I did short courses in Lean management at the Business school of the University of Cape Town (UCT).

With God’s grace, I then got promoted to a coveted job at Mediclinic’s International headquarters in the nearby Stellenbosch. I am now responsible to develop and roll out software applications that improve and standardise processes between the different divisions in Mediclinic, which are in the UAE, Southern Africa, and the UAE. Strictly speaking, my new position required a master’s degree, so I enrolled for a MA degree in Health Innovation at UCT. I was awarded this MA degree cum laude in December 2021. In age, I have just gone past the half-century mark, and if all goes well, as I believe it will, I am soon to start with my Ph.D.

Being married to Don is very rewarding, but with his double disability, it is not always a bed of roses. Don cannot do many chores, many of which now fall in my lap, or we have to pay someone to fix technical stuff in and around the house. Through the years St Dunstan’s has however played an enormous role to cover costs such as schooling, medical aid, and more. We are very thankful for this.

Don, being a ‘house dad’, contributes to the household management with his tutoring and sports coaching of the kids. This helps me immensely as I do not have to worry about this at all.

Together we do much, our kids perform well in academics and sports, and we are complimented on their good manners. It is however St Dunstan’s that, as the Afrikaans idiom goes, helps draw the wagon through the river crossing. The great blessing and grace from our Almighty God bring it all together.

By Maatje Wessels