Giving hope for free: Meet the surgeon giving free operations to breast cancer sufferers

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Dr Liana Roodt. (Photo: Misha Jordaan)
Dr Liana Roodt. (Photo: Misha Jordaan)

She’s been through a lot in the past few months: a double mastectomy and the surgical removal of 10 lymph nodes. But although it’s been a painful and nerve-racking process, Rianda van Wyngaardt isn’t complaining.

She knows that if she hadn’t had the surgery when she did, she probably wouldn’t be alive today. Rianda (59), a marketing manager from Gordon’s Bay, near Cape Town, was diagnosed with breast cancer in  August last year.

She didn’t have medical aid, so her only option was state health care, which meant being on a waiting list for up to six months.

Her doctor, realising Rianda was running out of time, put her in touch with Dr Liana Roodt, and within three months she was being wheeled into an operating theatre for the critical surgery.

Liana (38) is the driving force behind Project Flamingo, which aims to shorten waiting times for breast cancer patients who rely on the state health system by providing access to doctors, anaesthetists and medical personnel.

These specialists perform surgeries free of charge on weekends and public holidays when most operating theatres are empty.

“It helps in a small way to empower people in a system that can easily make you feel powerless,” Liana says.

It’s people such as Rianda whom the project is designed to help. Sadly for the mother of two, a subsequent scan revealed the cancer had spread to her spine so she’s now on hormone blockers to treat the disease.

“I’m taking each day as it comes and I’m staying positive,” Rianda says. But she’s convinced that her situation would’ve been a whole lot worse if she hadn’t had the surgery when she did.

“Liana is an absolutely wonderful doctor,” she adds.

The talented physician, who’s a specialist in breast and endocrine surgery, could’ve easily embarked on a career in any of the country’s top private hospitals, where patients with breast cancer usually receive treatment within a week of diagnosis.

Instead, she chooses to apply her talent, time and energy to help despairing people who can’t afford private healthcare.

The waiting period for breast cancer surgery in the public health service is usually around 25 weeks but for the 650 patients who received treatment for breast cancer via Project Flamingo over the past decade, this was reduced to an average of eight to 10 weeks.

But Liana refuses to take sole credit for the project’s success.

“All the doctors involved work for the government,” she explains. “Though the project was my idea and I’m charged with keeping it afloat, Project Flamingo isn’t Liana Roodt – it’s all the people who show up on a Saturday for more work despite long, gruelling hours during the week.

“That’s what makes it so wonderful.”

Like many good ideas, Project Flamingo was conceptualised over a glass of wine.

“I belong to a wine club,” Liana tells us. “We decided we weren’t going to call ourselves a book club because we weren’t going to be reading books.

“It’s a group of professional women and friends who work in various industries such as marketing and media. That evening, each of us spoke about how things were at work and I told them about the long waiting time for surgery for women with breast cancer.”

Back then, she was a surgical medical officer at the GF Jooste Hospital on the Cape Flats. And she was sick and tired of seeing patients’ lives being put at risk because they had to wait so long to get surgery.

dr liana roodt and her surgical team
Dr Liana roodt and her surgical team. (Photo: Misha Jordaan)

Breast cancer patients not only had to deal with the fact that the disease was spreading while they waited – the psychological toll on them and their families was high.

“The uncertainty is really hard on them.” Her friends wanted to know why they didn’t just perform more surgeries.

“I explained that we needed more surgeons who were able to be in theatre regularly to perform more operations.”

But by brainstorming with her friends she realised there was a solution. She needed doctors and anaesthetists to perform the surgeries for free.

And she needed access to operating theatres over weekends and public holidays because they were empty then.

In the end her only expenses would be to pay nurses and cover operational costs. That evening at the wine club her friends convinced her that fundraising was the solution.

They chose a name for the project that they felt sounded fun and upbeat, held an art and jewellery auction, and  after a breast cancer awareness organisation donated R10 000, Project Flamingo was up and running and performing its first surgeries.

Now there are nine doctors at Groote Schuur and Tygerberg state hospitals in Cape Town as well as Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth who oversee Project Flamingo’s surgeries.

The organisation also has a pool of 20 medical assistants and 30 anaesthetists who volunteer at various hospitals.

Liana says her time in theatre is the most relaxing part of her day because when she’s there she doesn’t have to keep several balls in the air at the same time.

Apart from helping manage Project Flamingo, she works at Groote Schuur and she runs  a private practice in Somerset West, near Cape Town – which is how she pays the bills.

“I’m always optimistically aiming for balance,” she says, chuckling. “But I struggle.”

Her practice has a homely atmosphere, creating the feeling that you’re sitting in a friend’s lounge. A painting of a Karoo landscape reminds her of her childhood visiting her grandparents on their farm between Steynsburg and Burgersdorp in the Eastern Cape. Liana was born in Namibia but while in primary school moved to Pretoria with her parents, LD and Danette Beukes, and younger sister, Andriette Jacobs. She attended Afrikaanse Hoër Meisieskool where she was head girl.

“I was a typical nerd,” Liana jokes. After school, she completed her medical degree at the University of Pretoria where her father was a lecturer in the education faculty. She hadn’t always known she wanted to be a doctor and initially enrolled for a B Com degree.

“Three weeks into the course I real ised it had been a massive mistake. I like discovering stuff and medicine is one of those fields with so many different  specialties. It’s possible to continue discovering a new career within your existing one.”

These days Liana lives in Stellenbosch with her boyfriend, Wynand Greeff. When she’s not saving lives, she enjoys reading, practising yoga or eating out at one of the many local restaurants. She’s optimistic about the future.

But the government needs to do a lot more, she believes.

“At the moment we’re just keeping the dam wall from bursting,” she says.

“It’s wonderful that you’re writing about Project Flamingo, but one also has to ask why such a project is necessary in the first place.”

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