Prof Peter Hesseling, former professor of Paediatric and Child Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), recently became the first African to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP).
This award recognises the role the FMHS played in the establishment of a novel footprint in paediatric oncology in Africa, Hesseling says.
“Stellenbosch University (SU) has offered me a lifetime of excellent opportunities as a student, teacher, researcher and manager,” says the retired healthcare veteran.
Hesseling has had a long and distinguished career as a Paediatric Oncologist.
Despite retiring in 2004 he has continued to serve the FMHS on an ad-hoc basis.
“There is simply no good reason to switch off your passion and discontinue the work that you are enjoying,” he says. In his opinion prescribed retirement age should not be a factor.
He does admit that he enjoys being relieved of the stress and responsibilities that come with holding a senior academic position.
“You of course need to create the opportunities to make this possible,” he adds.
In 2003 Hesseling responded to a challenge to assist with the treatment of Burkitt lymphoma in a rural Baptist mission hospital in Cameroon.
Sixteen years later a sustainable, comprehensive and fully funded childhood cancer programme with trained local staff and international collaborators at four Baptist mission hospitals show the fruits of his labour.
“I have since my childhood been interested in plants, animals and the needs of people.”
According to Hesseling, one of his early role models was an uncle who was a lifelong missionary doctor in a Transkei hospital.
Hesseling’s career spans decades. It includes the establishment of a children's haematology and oncology clinic at Tygerberg Hospital in 1974, his appointment as chairman of Paediatrics and Child Health in 1987, establishing the Africa Continental Branch of the International Society of Paediatric Oncology in 1992, and hosting the first international conference of the above society at Stellenbosch in 1994.
He also mentions the development of a low cost, effective and safe treatment schedule for African Burkitt lymphoma in Malawi, Ghana and Cameroon between 1996 and 2008 as major highlight.
Hesseling obtained his PhD entitled The epidemiology of Onyalai in the Kavango territory of Namibia, in 1983.
This experience taught him how to respect different African cultures, and how to execute clinical research in rural Africa he says.
Apart from the SIOP Lifetime Achievement Award in Childhood Cancer in 2019, Hesseling has also received the Francie van Zijl medal (FMHS Annual Academic Day), Frans Oettle Medal (South African Cancer Association), Paul Harris Award (Rotary International), and a merit award in Paediatric Haematology (SA College of Medicine).
He is now an honorary lifetime member of a number of professional societies.
Hesseling is still active in research and holds a National Research Foundation grant.
This award and ongoing research publications, have provided new opportunities for international scientific collaboration.
Responding to what drives him, Hesseling says: “Why am I doing this? What are my real motives? A medical degree offers the holder unique diverse career opportunities.
“You may want to earn lots of money, pursue science, teach, or simply serve mankind. Author Robert Ardry said ‘Every doctor finds his place in the sun’.”
Offering wisdom to the next generation of healthcare pioneers, Hesseling says when graduates obtain their degree, they should be a competent basic physician, but they have had limited exposure to the different disciplines of medicine.
“I think it is useful to spend a few years in a general hospital to discover what you like doing best, before considering further studies. I recommend a complete change of scenery from your teaching hospital.
“You will have the largest impact on health if you serve communities with the largest need. I hope you will all find your place in the sun, and hopefully in Africa.”