Marion Hattingh is a new physician in Crowsnest PassPhoto courtesy of Marion Hattingh

Original Published 14:38 Apr 13, 2022

By Gillian Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

When Marion Hattingh arrived in Crowsnest Pass a few months ago, she immediately felt like she was home.

The mountainous landscape reminded her of South Africa, her birth country and the country where she completed her medical degree.

Hattingh grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Canada as a child, growing up in Ontario. She later returned to her country of origin to study medicine at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. For many years, she worked as a doctor at Pholela Clinic, a remote rural medical centre situated in the mountains in the northeastern corner of the country.

Living in the mountains allowed her to take up her favourite sports, primarily trail running and rock climbing, and she sees the same opportunities here. 

She’s practising family medicine at Crowsnest Medical Clinic, is fully settled and is excited for all the outdoor adventures to come. She officially started work March 21, after years of pursuing accreditation in Canada.

Medical practice in South Africa was a rewarding, yet emotionally challenging experience, she says. Living in a remote rural area, a place devoid of stores and shops, where locals lived in huts, having few possessions save for a few cows and sheep, she witnessed the daily realities of poverty.

The dominant ethnic group in the area, the Zulu, faced many barriers when accessing medical services. Hattingh says they often had to walk for a day in order to reach the clinic she worked at and, once they arrived, they would wait overnight there for transport to bring them to a larger facility. The entire process, she explains, could take up to four days, and this long and arduous experience led many Zulu to forgo medical treatment entirely or put it off.

“The way the people think there is they kind of resign themselves to the fact that they’re sick now and that’s just the way it is,” she says.

Hattingh frequently visited with patients who had HIV or AIDS, had contracted tuberculosis, or were suffering from complications related to long-term illnesses like diabetes.

Often she treated stab or gun-shot wounds, the result of gang conflicts, domestic abuse or bursts of violence fuelled by alcoholism.

“I think you get a little bit desensitized to it at some point, but I mean, it’s never easy, especially if you see kids involved or teenagers involved. It’s sad that that’s the state of the nation,” she says.

Data gathered by the South African government shows that crime and violence are major issues within the country as a whole. Between April and June of 2021, there were 5,760 people killed in the country and 76,936 cases of assault. Over 15,000 assaults were the result of a domestic violence dispute, with one in five South African women having reported experiencing physical violence at least once in their life.

Adding to the complexity of the situation are language barriers. There weren’t many people practising medicine who spoke isiZulu, explains Hattingh, and many of the centres didn’t have the resources to hire interpreters for all situations. Speaking only English and Afrikaans, she had to learn to recognize certain words and often diagnosed locals using the limited vocabulary she acquired.

Hattingh knew she wanted to become a doctor from the time she was a young child and entered the field hoping to help alleviate problems brought about by poverty in South Africa. Over the years, she has come to realize that she cannot solve problems in her home country like she had originally hoped, but she has found solace in the fact that she was able to help her patients.

“If you can give them something to help them feel better and improve their health, then that’s quite a good feeling,” she says.

Hattingh is still adjusting to life in Crowsnest Pass and her new place of work. She’s familiarizing herself with a new referral system and she’s still in the process of being assessed by doctors, who are tracking her progress.

When she arrived in Canada in 2019, initially settling in Edmonton, she started the long and complicated process of getting her accreditation in a new country. This involved rewriting several theoretical and practical exams and participating in supervised practical assessments.

Although she says she hasn’t lived in the area long enough to notice any trends or points of need within the health-care field as a whole, she expects the opioid crisis will be an issue that continues to garner more attention from doctors, who typically refer individuals to recovery programs and deliver addiction resources.

The team she works with has been accepting and welcoming so far and Hattingh says she’s excited to get to know everyone better and get out on some outdoor adventures.

“I’m grateful for what I’ve been through and I think I’ve learned a lot through all that, but I’m also glad that chapter is behind me,” she says. “I’m excited to start here.”

This item reprinted from Shootin’ The Breeze, Pincher Creek, Alberta