(Published - 11 December 2019)
Johan Fourie put his studies on hold to care for his mother who was diagnosed with cancer. When he returned to the University of the Western Cape (UWC), he too was diagnosed with the disease, but that did not deter him from finishing his degree in social work.
On Friday the 27-year-old from the little town of Calitzdorp, in the Karoo, will graduate Cum Laude and will become the first in his family to obtain a university degree.
“It is very important to me and a major accomplishment because I come from a home where the highest qualification for my parents was Grade 3. I value the opportunity of becoming a qualified social worker and being able to serve communities around the country with grace, compassion and empathy,” says Fourie.
In 2014, Fourie, the eldest of three children, suspended his studies to become his mother Hendrieka’s primary caregiver after she fell ill with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
At this stage, he was still unaware that his act of selflessness and love would set his studies back by four years. Two years later, he was still at her side when her cancer eventually went into remission.
Fourie returned to studying at UWC in 2016 with a renewed sense of determination. He had to start his studies all over again, even though he had previously completed 2 years of social work studies at Wits University. While at UWC he was selected for an exchange programme at the University of Missouri in the USA, was awarded a coveted bursary and won several academic accolades. He even found time to offer counselling services to students.
Towards May of this year, as he was preparing for his mid-year assessments, he was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia.
It sparked an emotional meltdown, but he refused to allow the cancer to deter his academic commitments.
“I decided to tell no one. There I was, counselling others whenever they were diagnosed with cancer and other diseases, while I was falling apart. But I had to accept the reality of my situation. I had to pick myself up and do what I needed to do,” says Fourie.
Then came another setback towards the end of May this year. Because of a technicality, his medical aid declined to cover R30 000 of his medical bills.
“The diagnosis came after a routine visit to the Campus Health Centre. I didn’t even really feel sick. Things happened fast. Two days later I was admitted to the hospital, and within the next two days I had to start chemotherapy, with the diagnosis confirming the malignancy,” says Fourie, who is an intern at Tygerberg Hospital.
“I cannot begin to describe how difficult this period was. Emotionally, I had to deal with the unexpectant diagnosis, the treatment, the debt, the speed at which everything was happening, as well as the uncertainty of what is going to happen to my studies.
“I was resentful. At first, I resisted taking the medication, but I reminded myself to stay committed to my goals.”
Fourie says the drive to serve others comes from his mom’s philosophy in life - if you serve others, good things will come your way. He is still receiving treatment and suffers from nausea and arthritis - side effects of the medication.
"I hope my story encourages students in the same or similar situations. Despite all the challenges - food insecurity, mental health issues, stressful studies, and failing physical health - it is possible to overcome."
“I still get calls from debt collectors every day, but I’m hopeful that I will be able to find work to service my debts.”