We chat to Karin Robertson, the pharmacist in charge of the oncology pharmacy at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital (CMJAH), about her upcoming retirement and 36 years of public service.
Karin Robertson (64) lives in Blairgowrie, Gauteng with her husband, Ian. They have three adult children.
Choosing the path of pharmacy
Karin wasn’t sure what to study and started a BSc. She then spent a year as an exchange student, in USA, and the father of the household was a pharmacist. “I found it a match with my interest in human biology and chemistry. So, I changed my degree when I returned to SA and received a Bachelor of Pharmacy in 1979 from Rhodes University.”
After receiving her degree, Karin did an internship at Johannesburg Academic Hospital (now CMJAH). She also did a short locum in a wholesale company and worked in the retail sector for a few years. “However, I found that I preferred the variety of working in a hospital environment and returned to CMJAH as a pharmacist.”
“When I joined CMJAH, in 1985, the pharmacy staff were given the option to rotate through the various divisions of the pharmacy. I was inspired by the pharmacist in charge of the oncology pharmacy, Michael Conidaris. His caring attitude and professional approach to oncology pharmacy made me want to continue in the oncology field.”
When Karin had her children, she stopped working in the oncology pharmacy but returned when they were older. She adds, “The treatment of cancer is rapidly changing, and research is ongoing. I find this fascinating and enjoy being exposed to the literature and knowledge about oncology therapies.”
In 2010, Karin was put in charge of the oncology pharmacy and since then has dedicated her career to helping hundreds of cancer patients every day.
Love for the job
The interaction with patients and professional healthcare workers in all spheres is what Karin loves about her job. “The amount that I’ve learnt from others in my working career humbles me, especially from Carien van der Merwe. The positive attitude of people that I meet daily shows me that there is always hope and caring.”
Successes of working at CMJAH
“I hope that my best success has been that patients feel that they are in a caring environment when they come in for treatment. This is difficult with the large numbers that we treat and the number of limitations in terms of staff and facilities. The pharmacy staff do try to treat patients as individuals that need respect and help wherever possible,” she explains.
Karin sees the upgrade of the pharmacy by Roche Pharmaceuticals, in 2012, as the most significant improvement. “They relocated the pharmacy to a larger space which provided a safer environment for staff to work in. This was facilitated by Prof Ruff, the Head of Medical Oncology and Haematology. Roche has provided support and aid to the pharmacy staff throughout the years of me being at CMJAH. Their generosity and willingness to help in any way has improved the knowledge and capability of the pharmacy staff to help patients in turn,” she says.
“After a number of years, the wear and tear on the adult oncology pharmacy at CMJAH has taken its toll. I’m thrilled that Bristol-Myers Squibb has sponsored a new upgrade of the mixing area to a cleanroom facility. Since I’m retiring in June 2021, this will be a wonderful legacy to leave to future oncology pharmacists who work there. The renovations will still have to be completed if the area where adult oncology is opened up after the devastating fire.”
Struggles of working at CMJAH
Karin explains that there has always been a battle with obtaining staff willing to work in the department. “It takes a long time for staff to be competent and comfortable with working in oncology. The high turnover of staff limits the number of experienced pharmacists. The purchasing protocols in place aren’t streamlined and it may take a long time to obtain necessary chemotherapy. There has been a worldwide shortage of a number of oncology medicines which jeopardises our ability to access live-saving treatments.”
She adds, “Due to the high-cost of chemotherapy medicines in private, a large number of patients come to the hospital for treatment. It’s difficult at times to have the resources to give these patients the care and attention that they need.”
Staying in the public hospital sector
When asked what has kept her in the public hospital sector, Karin responds, “During the first stage of my career, it was tempting to return to private due to the large discrepancy in salaries. Luckily, salaries have evened out. The hospital sector provided more variety which I found interesting. Fortunately, my husband has been supportive of my career at the hospital.”
A typical day of work life
“The working hours are 07:30 to 16:00. The starting point is the main pharmacy, where we need to register and have our temperature taken and recorded. Masks and protective aprons are issued. My staff and I move up to the oncology pharmacy. A staff member is allocated to work in the paediatric oncology pharmacy. The previous day’s files are reviewed for repeats and the statistics are done. Patients come in early if they weren’t able to receive medicines the previous day. The person mixing in the adult department must wash and gown up, put the syringes, needles, alcohol swabs and vials to be used in the biohazard cabinet.”
“A roster is drawn up allocating staff to prepare premedication, another to do oral medicine dispensing and someone to coordinate the prescriptions received for patients receiving chemotherapy. The pharmacy handles about 120 patients from the clinic and an average of 10 patients from the wards. Records need to be maintained. I draw up the roster which allows the staff to rotate. Medicine and disposables are ordered weekly. I draw up the list of oncology medicines every month, for ordering from companies. The most time-consuming part is costing prescriptions of those patients who are to be charged for their medicine.”
Working during the pandemic
“The pandemic shifted the focus away from potentially life-threatening situations, such as cancer. Many wards were moved and reduced in size to allocate wards for the treatment of COVID patients. Some doctors and nurses were seconded away from the oncology department to the COVID wards. A number of staff succumbed to the virus which reduced our numbers until they recovered. The Department of Health and many pharma companies have had a lot of pressure surrounding the pandemic which has taken their attention away from other disciplines. Patients have been nervous to come into the hospital which means they have delayed treatment. Never a good scenario with cancer. The sooner it’s diagnosed and treated, the better.”
Despite this, Karin’s message to all healthcare professionals is that of hope and compassion. “It truly makes a difference in outcome. Caring from professional healthcare workers, friends and family is crucial. Cancer doesn’t differentiate who it strikes. It could be a loved one, young or old. Help and care for all patients on that basis.”
CMJAH fire damage
Unfortunately the recent fire was in the same block as adult oncology and there are concerns over structural damage which may have occurred. Karin says, “I’m devastated by the fire as I feel that a large percentage of our patients won’t receive the care they deserve over the next few months. There are talks about relocating the oncology OPD to other hospitals, but only Steve Biko Academic Hospital, in Pretoria, and Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital (CHBAH) have oncology units. The adult oncology department at CHBAH has only recently been established and may not have the capacity to treat the numbers of patients required. Also a problem is the records of each patient’s treatment plans are not available.” Hopefully a solution will be found.
Life after retirement
Karin is retiring, in June, a few months early than she is meant to as her daughter is getting married and she wishes to be part of that journey. She is also planning a trip down the west coast in spring. Though, she admits that it would be exciting to do locum work for oncology practices, if available.
MEET OUR EDITOR – Laurelle Williams
Laurelle Williams is the editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Write to the [email protected]
Photo by Laurelle Williams.