In the heart of a small farming community in Hamlet in the Western Cape, is where Sister Melissa Willemse’s journey began. Growing up with her grandparents, financial challenges marked her early years, but they instilled in her the values of hard work and the importance of caring for others. It was these values that would guide and strengthen her along her nursing journey and when she was faced with the biggest battle of her own life when she was diagnosed with cancer. In the first of a new Health Heroes podcast series, Dawn Noemdoe shares Willemse’s inspiring story.
As a child, Willemse (47) lived with her grandparents on a farm where she was surrounded by a close-knit group of about eight cousins. Her mother worked in Cape Town, struggling to make ends meet, and her grandparents became her pillars of strength and primary providers. They stretched every grain to ensure there was enough for their grandchildren.
These formative years were challenging, but they fueled her determination to break free from the cycle of poverty and make a difference in her family’s life. From a young age, Willemse harboured dreams of attaining a respectable job, one that would allow her to give back to her family and community.
Her mother worked as a house cleaner for others and Willemse aspired for more. Despite her financial struggles, her mother would visit once a year, bringing her gifts, a new dress for Christmas, something special for New Year’s and school supplies for the upcoming year. She grew up appreciating the value of hard work and perseverance.
Discovering a love for healthcare
A significant turning point came after Willemse completed high school. She took a job as a forklift driver in a cold storage facility. Little did she know that fate had other plans for her. The facility required a first-aid officer for every 50 employees and her manager saw potential in her. She was reluctant at first, but her supervisor insisted she attend and her journey in healthcare started.
Her initial dreams of joining the police or the army quickly faded, and nursing ignited a passion in her that she had never experienced before. She excelled in her first-aid training and embarked on further studies, earning her Level 2 and Level 3 first-aid certifications.
Doors started opening
The clinic on the factory premises later hired her as the staff nurse, thanks to her dedication and the encouragement of colleagues. Her dedication and newfound passion for nursing shone through, and she embraced her new role wholeheartedly.
She faced challenges, but the support and mentorship of her colleagues, specifically Sister Brenda Appollis, kept her motivated.
Over the years, Willemse’s career in nursing continued to blossom and her journey led her to Worcester Hospital. However, her ambitions didn’t stop there, she continued her studies through the hospital and eventually earned her status as a staff nurse.
“My dream was to become a sister one day, so I resigned from Worcester Hospital in 2017.”
Today, she works as the mobile nurse at the Tulbagh Clinic in the Witzenburg Municipality, bringing healthcare services to remote communities. She cares for chronically ill patients, administers immunisations, and conducts regular check-ups for the young and old alike.
“I can tell you it is not easy. Working in a hospital, doctors will give orders and that’s it. But in the clinic setup we work as sisters independently,” she says.
The journey with cervical cancer
Willemse’s life took an unexpected turn when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer on 9 December 2022. After a routine follow-up pap smear, she received shocking news – she had cervical cancer. Despite having no symptoms, the diagnosis hit her like a cold splash of water.
She underwent a total abdominal hysterectomy, a painful and emotionally challenging experience.
It took a huge toll on her and her family.
But her resilience prevailed, and she came out on the other side determined to raise awareness about the importance of regular pap smears and HPV vaccinations.
On a mission for others
Willemse is on a mission to educate and inspire her community about the importance of early detection and prevention. She advocates for wellness, hygiene, and regular check-ups, emphasising the critical role nurses play in healthcare.
Her message to fellow nurses is simple but powerful: take care of yourself to better take care of others. She encourages her colleagues to prioritise their health and well-being and to embrace technology that can enhance patient care.
This inspirational nurse embodies the spirit of nursing, always putting her patients and community first. She serves as a reminder that with unwavering dedication, even the most challenging paths can lead to incredible achievements and impact the lives of many.
Listen to the full interview on the Health For Mzansi podcast:
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