How Chanell Became a Medical Doctor and How She Almost Didn’t…

In every person’s life, there comes that pivotal moment where everything falls apart and you have to make a decision as to who you are. For Bontehuewel’s Chanell Claasen, that pivotal moment came when she realised that she would not be getting into medical school. In that moment though, she decided that she was not someone who gives up easily.

Chanell had always been an A aggregate achiever with an obsessive need for perfection. The Kensington High matric learner had been actively planning on becoming a doctor for most of her young life. As part of that plan, she attended Saturday Maths classes at UCT and job shadowed at the Red Cross Hospital, Kingsbury Hospital and Vincent Palloti Hospital where she had to observe surgeries. She confesses that she fainted when she witnessed her first ever surgery. The sight of the skin being pulled apart, revealing the insides of the patient, was just too much for the young Chanell. After she woke up however; she lifted herself from the floor, dusted herself off, had some sweet tea and went into the next surgery. Her relentless commitment to achieving her goal was rewarded when, during her matric year, she was accepted to study medicine at Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town. This was of course, only a provisional acceptance. Before she could get a final acceptance, she had to first complete her matric exams and achieve an overall B aggregate which, at the time, included a 50% pass for mathematics. And then everything fell apart.

Chanell’s pivotal moment arrived while she was writing her final matric mathematics exams. She came across a question that she simply did know the answer to, and being an obsessive perfectionist, this bothered her. As someone that received A’s for Maths, she was determined to answer the question, so she tackled it. Any educator will tell you that if you do not know the answer to a question, move on to the next one. If you obsess over a question that you cannot answer, this will stress you out and the stress will make it harder for you to concentrate on the rest of the paper. This is exactly what happened to Chanell. For the first time in her life, she suffered a panic attack, and at the end of the paper, she had to beat back the tears. She knew that she would not be getting into medical school. She describes the 3 hours writing that maths paper, as the “longest 3 hours of my life”.

When the results came out, the high achiever managed 5 distinctions, one B and only 49% for maths. Her worst fears were confirmed when she received a letter from both universities, rejecting her application to study medicine. With one question, everything she had worked for went up in flames. She cried, wiped her tears, made peace with the fact that she would not get into medical school, and then… well… made plans to get into medical school.

Now, when you are a high achiever growing up in a tough neighbourhood in a home where your mom struggles to put food on the table, you tend to be a bit tougher than most. You wipe your tears and then you make a plan. Chanell had already decided that for the next year, she would start volunteering in hospitals. In addition, her mom had sent her exam results away to be remarked in the hope that she might get a higher mark. When the results of her remarked exam paper came back, she scored 50% and a few days later on the 6th of February 2012, she attended her first class as a medical student at Stellenbosch University. However, she did not score a 60% and she had to complete one more step in achieving her dream.

Given that Chanell had been such a high achiever in the past, the university decided to allow her to study medicine through the extended 7 year programme. A medical degree takes 6 years to complete while the 7 year programme is for those that have shown themselves to have great potential but have not had the opportunities that the wealthy kids get. This means that for the first year of study, Chanell had to complete foundational courses before she could move on to the 6 year medical programme. It was not ideal but it was the second chance that allowed Chanell to achieve the dream that she had worked hard for all of her young life.

Since money was tight, she had to secure a loan from NSFAS and during her second year of study, she was awarded a bursary from the Western Cape Health Department. She completed her degree in 2018 and is currently completing the second year of her internship at Paarl Hospital. As part of her internship, she had to practice in the various areas of medicine, which include Paediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Anaesthetics and Orthopedics. For the next three months, she will be focused on family medicine before moving on to Internal Medicine and then Surgery. Going forward, she wants to specialise in Paediatric surgery and hopes to work for the Red Cross Children’s Hospital.

Chanell says that had it not been for her mom, Farieda, she might not have made it this far. As a kid growing up in the ghetto, she did not think it would be possible for her to become a doctor. There weren’t any doctors in her family and in fact, there wasn’t anyone with a degree in her family. It was Farieda however that made sure that her daughter believed in herself and pursued her dreams, even during those times when putting food on the table was a struggle. As a result, not only did Chanell become the first doctor in her family, but she was also the first to get a degree.

Although her parents divorced when she was 10, Chanell is also still very close to her father. He had never stopped supporting her and even attends special family gatherings with Farieda and the kids which includes Chanell’s younger sister and brother. She says that as a family, they are very close and supportive of each other, something that her medical doctor and tech entrepreneur husband, Chad Marthinussen, have come to appreciate. Being an only child, Chad loves the fact that he is now part of a bigger family with brothers and sisters.

When Chanell is not spending time with her family or stitching up a patient, she enjoys running, reading, having spa days and coffee dates with friends. As a hobby, she absolutely loves planning parties and weddings, and have planned every single family member’s birthday party. She says that this hobby started when she planned on her own wedding (which she describes as the most perfect day of her life) and hopes to start an events company “as a sideline to medicine”.

The advice she gives to parents and young people is simple. To parents she says that her mother has shown her that “all your kids need is love, prayers and encouragement.” To young girls growing up on the Cape Flats, she feels that if she could make it, then so can they. She knows how hard it is to say no to the social ills that surround them, but through sheer will, they too can overcome the odds. She says that you have to “fight for your dreams and don’t let anybody tell you that you are not good enough”.

The world is a messy, complicated place, and the path to success is filled with numerous disappointments. It is however in these moments that we find out who we really are. Chanell teaches us that, when faced with that pivotal moment of life altering disappointment, we have a choice to make. We can either give up or find a way to overcome the obstacle blocking our path.  It is not an easy choice but if we sit down, wipe our tears and lay down a plan, we can overcome any obstacle in this beautifully imperfect world.

Note: A Special Thanks to Dr. Chanell Claasen for taking the time to help us with this story.

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