‘In the medical field you have a sacrificial responsibility,’ she says of facing Covid-19, cancer and the listeria outbreak when giving birth to her son
Yentl Gamiet grew up in Buffalo Flats with one dream — to become a medical doctor.
Today, Dr Gamiet has taken that dream even further than she first imagined.
The 38-year-old East Londoner is a specialist paediatric surgeon at the revered Red Cross children’s hospital in Cape Town.
“I was the only person to qualify in my fellowship year,” Dr Gamiet said.
After matriculating at Hudson Park High School, she studied medicine at the University of Stellenbosch, from 2002 to 2007.
The bachelor of medicine and surgery, or MBCHB graduate, completed her internship at Kalafong Hospital in Pretoria, and finished her community service in 2010.
She then worked as a medical officer at Frere Hospital in East London, from 2011 to 2014.
Apart from her passion for medicine, she has also always had a love for the arts, having danced since she was five years old.
In 2012, though with little free time away from her job, she still managed to rehearse and perform in Evita at the Guild Theatre.
“I was dancing while I was doctoring,” she laughed.
“The theatre is right across from the hospital. I didn’t really go home.”
During this time, her eye fell on pianist Germaine Gamiet, 39, down in the orchestra pit.
Germaine said: “She was dancing and I was in the orchestra, but still it took me three years to ask her out for coffee.”
While continuing her studies and taking up a fellowship in paediatric surgery in Johannesburg, Dr Gamiet was diagnosed with fibroid cancer in 2016.
She said: “We had been dating for nine months when cancer happened.
“Germaine spontaneously said we should get married.
“He anchored us and moved to Johannesburg, and believed in me more than I believed in myself.
“I started flamenco again. I danced for the fun of it.”
After getting married, she started her cancer treatment.
“The treatment can affect fertility, so I was scared of not being able to have children.
“I had surgery and radioactive ablation therapy.
“I don’t think all cancers are the same, it was caught early.
“Initially, the C-word is so all-consuming, but it made me determined to finish.”
The first six months of recovery were the hardest, she said.
“It was rough physically and difficult to process emotionally.”
But despite this setback, she gave birth to their son Oliver in 2018, while continuing with her studies.
“During the pregnancy scans, I almost forgot Germaine was in the room.
“Looking at the foetus, as a doctor, I knew what could possibly go wrong.
“During my pregnancy there was a listeria outbreak from polony. The bacteria can affect all areas of the body.
“At the hospital we had two newborn patients with congenital abnormalities with listeria — the intestinal infection — part of their intestine had died and had to be removed.
“They were only a week old but survived,” Dr Gamiet said, recalling this stressful period.
Fortunately, Oliver was born healthy.
“In the medical field, you have a sacrificial responsibility. So many doctors get complications with TB.
“But we still do it — there’s a code, you keep going.
“It becomes different when you are compromising your child. Thankfully Oliver was born a bit small, but very healthy.”
After her maternity leave, she returned to her work as a paediatrician with a new perspective as a mother.
“There was a set of twins who had flame burns and were the same age as Oliver.
“It’s an intense feeling, and is still difficult if a child is Oliver’s age, it just hits different.”
Then the pandemic hit in 2020 and life was turned upside down.
“Germaine took on the role of the primary caregiver at home.
“I wore a hazmat suit at work, we created a system.
“I had my own entrance and bathroom. We laughed and he called me Covid-19 Barbie.
“We didn’t have any protective equipment at the public hospital.
“Friendships were forged by fire in that place. It’s a perpetual war zone.
“In our department many people got sick and there were deaths due to uncertainty, because at that time we hadn’t worked out how children present symptoms, we only had ventilators in certain wings of the hospital and very sick children died because they couldn’t get into ICU.
“When one of our ICU nurses got sick and needed to be admitted into her own ward, there were no beds. She died.”
There was no time or space to process the emotional toll.
“It was just about surviving.”
She said the pandemic saw doctors leaving the profession with burnout.
She returned to her home city, East London, in 2020 during the second wave and became an unemployed specialist paediatric surgeon.
“I’m a Christian, I have always felt that God wanted me to do surgery, even though it’s a consuming job, I could never shake it.
“Whenever I am ready to give up, something would happen, and seeing how God provided, I knew we could keep going.”
In 2021, she was offered the position at the Red Cross Hospital in Cape Town.
“I think the work starts now, I am honing my skills as a doctor and get to decide what kind of surgeon I want to be.”
Germaine said: “It’s amazing! It’s such a significant qualification for a person, let alone a woman of colour from East London in a white-dominated field.
“Mostly our limitations are what we place on ourselves.”