How is #COVID19 affecting patients’ mental health in rural areas? Read this interview with Dr Phelelani Dludla, a medical officer in KwaZulu-Natal.

Dr Phelelani Dludla, a medical officer at Benedictine District Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal, is passionate about the mental wellbeing of his patients and improving healthcare in his community. He’s currently working on the front line of COVID-19 at Benedictine Hospital, a 363-bed hospital in the Zululand health district that serves the people of Nongoma and surrounding rural communities.

Dr Dludla explains how COVID-19 is affecting the hospital’s psychiatric services. “Currently, the amount of information available to us is enough, but the buzz around the information on mainstream media has given us an unprecedented number of relapses in patients with mood disorders,” he says.

“The wards are filling up with patients and the need for social distancing creates stress for the caregivers – healthcare workers as well as relatives,” he adds. Because visitors are not allowed at the hospital during the pandemic, carers are unable to get collateral information and family meetings cannot be conducted, he explains.


Challenging childhood fuels his resolve to do good

The 34-year-old doctor has led a challenging but inspiring life. “I grew up in Dondotha, KwesaKwaMthethwa, where I was raised by my maternal grandmother. Later, in 2002, I met my father’s second wife and my brother and sister, who lived in Manguzi in the eNgutshana area.”

He moved to Manguzi, a rural community in Umkhanyakude District Municipality that’s also home to the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation, to live with his family on his father’s side.

Dr Dludla says resources were scarce while he was growing up in rural KwaZulu-Natal. “My financially challenging childhood became the fuel for wanting to do better for the benefit of my family. I became determined to be in a career where you could make a difference in people’s lives every day.”

Despite many hardships, today Dr Dludla is a GP with a special interest in psychiatry and gynaecology. But before he became a doctor, he obtained a BSc and BSc Honours degree in microbiology at the University of Zululand in 2007 and 2009.


Principal steps in to nurture his love of learning

“My early university life in microbiology was made possible by my high school principal, Mr Norman Mpanza, who had taken me and my late brother in,” Dr Dludla recalls. “In 2003, he helped us enrol at varsity. We lost my brother later that year. Mr Mpanza continued to support my educational journey between 2003 and 2012, and remains a father figure in my life.”


Childhood loss inspires passion for medicine

“The passing of my mother from a stroke made me curious about diseases and how to prevent or treat them,” Dr Dludla shares. “It became a thought at the back of my mind, and later it was the only thing I wanted to do.”

In 2008, he started studying medicine at Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “I came across Umthombo Youth Development Foundation in 2009 while doing my second year in medicine,” Dr Dludla explains. When he lost his sponsor that year, Umthombo stepped in to help, and in 2012, he graduated with his MBChB. A dedicated life-long learner, Dr Dludla is now pursuing a diploma in psychiatry.


Restoring mental wellbeing and dignity

He did his community service from September 2015 to September 2016 at Manguzi Hospital and has worked in rural hospitals ever since. “In staying at rural hospitals, I hope to gain experience in continued mental healthcare and to offer services that are hard to come by due to absent private psychiatric facilities,” he explains.

He joined Benedictine District Hospital in 2016. He runs a gynaecology clinic for the prevention cancer of the cervix and is also responsible for psychiatric and mental health services to the community.

“It’s challenging to provide this service in the rural areas due to limited support,” he says of his mental health work. “It involves working on restoring mental wellbeing and dignity to clients and families who suffer from a mental health condition. I also assist in integrating mental health patients back into communities.”


Inspiring young people to dream

Dr Dludla says being a role model in his community and inspiring young people to aim for greatness is “an everyday business” for him. “I hope to influence more people in the rural areas to dream of changing their lives,” he says, “and to improve the community’s belief in education.”

His motto? “We must become heroes in our own life stories.”

Dr Dludla looks to the future of rural healthcare. “I hope we can take up the challenges and turn them into opportunities to solve problems in healthcare in a constructive manner, manage skills shortage and budget constraints, do our best to provide good quality service, and help to improve the mental wellbeing of our patients as well as the staff members,” he concludes.


Discovery thanks Dr Phelelani Dludla for his continued work on the front line in rural KwaZulu-Natal.


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