13 Apr, 2016

Doctors' Orders to Ride


Working 80-hour weeks in a government hospital is already not a job for the faint-hearted, let alone adding training for the nine-day 900km Old Mutual Joberg2c mountain biking race! But that’s what two paediatric surgeons from Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital are doing, because Chris Westgarth-Taylor and André Theron will be riding the event from 22 to 30 April for Surgeons for Little Lives. – BY ROXANNE MARTIN

In 2014, some of the doctors working in Soweto decided that something had to be done about the worsening conditions at the Baragwanath Hospital. “We had had enough of seeing what was happening at Baragwanath and the rest of the hospitals, how they were deteriorating, and decided we needed to get involved and uplift our department,” explains Chris Westgarth-Taylor. “So, looking at the success of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, we decided that we could do the same, especially in relation to the lives of our patients and paediatric surgery.”

From this, Surgeons for Little Lives was born, a non-profit organisation working to raise money to fund specific projects that will improve the care given to the children at the paediatric divisions of Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic and Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospitals. Looking for ways to raise money, the doctors involved decided that riding seemed a great avenue through which to fundraise, and so they started in 2014 with #rideforacause, and then in 2015 luck favoured the brave as Surgeons for Little Lives became a nominated charity for Joberg2c. The campaign was a massive success, with R360,000 being raised, which will be put to good use by the charity, notably for the burns unit at Baragwanath.


Changing Lives

The Paediatric Burns Unit often receives between two and four admissions daily, and an average of some 600 admissions each year, and these are mostly major injuries that require expert medical care. The Surgeons for Little Lives team’s long-term aim is to build a dedicated paediatric burns theatre, because “at the moment we share a theatre with the adults and only get the theatre for two days a week, when in reality we need it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Chris.

Another big project for this year is to build a proper outpatient facility at Baragwanath, with a boarding room above it so mothers can stay at the hospital. Chris explains that when you see the current outpatient facility, you realise how much this is needed, because currently they have a small room in which four doctors sit and examine patients. There is no privacy, and the doctors work at tiny crammed desks, with little or no space to examine children properly, talking over one another just trying to be heard. The new facility will create an area where these children can be treated with dignity and care, and the room above will be something of a saving grace for parents: “At the moment, parents can’t sleep with their children, which means that parents with children in the burns unit don’t see their children much for months,” explains Chris. This room would make it possible for parents to be with their children, which has been found to be vital to their recovery.

The last big aim for this year is to build an outside playground for child patients. “A play area is good for recovery,” says Chris, adding that it can be used for physio as well, another vital element in their recovery. “Children must be able to play,” he says.


Nine Days, 900 Kays

So, this year Chris and André will be the only surgeons taking part in the Joberg2c. André is a newbie to the race… well, actually, it’s his first MTB race ever! Chris, on the other hand, is a seasoned rider and will be tackling the race for a second time, but hoping to finish it this time. Last year his race ended in a helicopter ride out of the Umkomaas Valley, with a dislocated shoulder. “We knocked out half of our paediatric surgeons in one day,” Chris jokes. This year, while riding as solo entrants, the two both aim to finish, although their training methods are rather different.

Chris is confident that he has put in the training for the big race, even though it will still be a hard nine days. “We ride to have fun, we are not serious cyclists, and we don’t wear lycra!” is his response to how he cycles. While his work schedule is crazy, he makes a plan on weekends to get the rides in that he needs, and the rest will have to be ‘vasbyt,’ with the knowledge that a cold beer waits for him at the end.

Meanwhile, André’s preparation for joberg2c has been rather unconventional, as he explains: “During the week, because of our work schedules, I have found it impossible to go riding, so I have been doing a lot of other sports, like swimming and squash… and a couple of push-ups at night!” He then does weekend rides at Northerns and at the Red Barn, and has been riding with people that have completed the race. When somebody alludes to the fact that he should have stepped up the training, he just responds that, “Training is a strong word.” In response, Chris has a hearty chuckle while telling us he has let André know what he is in for: “I have told him it’s a kak-off over 100km each for nine days, so he knows,” to which André chirps back, “I have a lot of bum cream!”


Ready to Ride

This will be an adventure many dream of, with nine days of riding through some of the most beautiful routes our country has to offer. The two surgeons, while admitting they are perhaps a little under-prepared, have something driving them to finish, a project that they not only campaign for, but a project that they breath, eat and sleep on a daily basis. Through Surgeons for Little Lives, these docs want to show their patients that they deserve and will get a lot more.

To read more about Surgeons for Little Lives and to offer your support, please visit their website at