Come March, we will be approaching the first anniversary of a time when South Africa as we knew it, suddenly changed dramatically. When the country went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic many lives changed forever.
It wasn’t any different for Clinical Pharmacy master’s student, Alex Wehmeyer, from the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Natural Sciences Faculty.
Wehmeyer joined many healthcare workers on the frontline to help countless patients. He reported for duty at the CTICC field hospital in Cape Town as part of a COVID-19 relief effort in the city.
Looking back at this period (from June 2020 to August 2020) he vividly recalls his very first day of field service - his heart raced uncontrollably as he slipped on his personal protective gear. “That’s when I realised - the time has arrived for me to step up and serve my country,” he said.
Thankfully, Wehmeyer has completed his field training with his health still intact and is able to look back on the experience with gratitude.
“I have seen first-hand how patients were pining for their loved ones while suffering, and have even seen some dying without seeing their relatives or being able to say their final goodbyes.
“My field of study has allowed me to better appreciate the level of care people can provide to each other as well as how grateful people can be.
“I now have a colourful plastic hat that a grateful, elderly patient gave me just because I took the time to explain the correct way to take her medication. I remember her forcing it under the Perspex dispensing screen as she thanked me. That hat lives on my desk next to my framed Pharmacist's Oath as a reminder of why I do what I do.”
Wehmeyer is known to his lecturers as a dedicated student - compassionate to communities with limited access to healthcare.
Dr Jane McCartney, Wehmeyer’s co-supervisor and lecturer at UWC, noted that he is passionate about transforming healthcare in SA and about improving patient care.
These characteristics inspired his lecturers to nominate him in the second season of a competition by Adcock Ingram and News24 in November of last year. The competition sought to discover the next generation of healthcare heroes.
He may not have won the prize money of R25 000, but he secured his spot among the top ten in the competition and was featured in a video depicting his personal experience and vision as a healthcare professional in South Africa. Professor Renier Coetzee, his supervisor who specialises in clinical pharmacy and community engagement at UWC, walked a journey with Alex since his undergraduate studies.
Wehmeyer is very pleased with Prof Coetzee and the fieldwork opportunities that came his way as a result of his studies. “I am now better able to appreciate the role of pharmacists outside of the dispensary, including in the community and in hospital wards. The profession has so much more to offer outside the traditional pharmacy setting.
“The field hospital experience made me realise I want to do something that I am passionate about: transforming healthcare in SA; and I want to improve patient care.
“Clotting is the greatest cause of preventable inpatient death in the world. This is even more important if we consider the strong associations between COVID infection and clotting.
“I’m hoping it can be used to promote a higher level of awareness of the need to give individualised clotting risk assessment and care to patients.
“So now my research looks at how doctors diagnose and treat all patients in hospitals who are at risk of developing blood clots. It also looks at the actions doctors take or don’t take to prevent clotting in their patients,” he said.
“I look at whether they are using risk scores, which are point-based systems, where they will take into account certain clotting risk factors, such as HIV infection, obesity, broken bones, etc. In short, my research is taking a clotting risk scoring system, assessing the patient's risk and then looking at what the doctor prescribed or did not prescribe to prevent clots.
“Although my study is limited in size and the number of hospitals, I hope that it can serve as a background for further research in this field in South Africa, because there are so many unexplored factors that influence a doctor's decision to assess a patient's risk of clotting.”
A son of a pharmacist, his journey to becoming a pharmacist is vastly different from that of his father. While in the past the roles of doctors, physiotherapists, nurses and pharmacists dictated that they traditionally worked independently, Alex has a strong multidisciplinary healthcare team approach.
“If there is one thing this pandemic has clearly taught us, it is that we as healthcare professionals should work together as a unit. The CTICC field hospital was where I experienced the advantage of extensive interdisciplinary work for the first time.”
Wehmeyer and some colleagues wrote about their experiences here.
“I do feel that South Africa has a long journey ahead with achieving optimal interdisciplinary care. I also feel that younger generations of healthcare workers and even the general public have the greatest ability to advocate for change.”
He said UWC has influenced his outlook on life. “I believe that the community-based approach that I have been exposed to had a great impact on my life. It helped me realise the benefit and value that a pharmacist can have in the community. After working so closely with an NGO in the Delft community, I really feel that I understand what social accountability means. I think this is one of the greatest exposures I had thanks to UWC and the School of Pharmacy.”