Stellenbosch University
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Dynamite comes in small packages
Author: Marguerite van Wyk
Published: 14/08/2019

​​You shouldn't let her delicate hands and petite stature fool you.

Dr Karin Baatjes' impressive title as Head of the Division of Anatomy and Histology at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch, attests to her dynamism, hard work and intellect.

She saves lives, trains students and doctors and is a researcher of note.

Baatjes also has a heart for charity. For instance, she ran a marathon (42.2 km) and raised R53 000 for Reach for Recovery's Ditto project, a breast cancer support organisation. She is also involved in the Tygerberg campus' pantry project. “We collect non-perishable foods and hygienic products every month for students who struggle financially.

“I am also involved in a lot of work for Project Flamingo. It involves surgeons performing additional breast cancer operations every second month on Saturdays, thereby shortening waiting times at Tygerberg and Groote Schuur Hospitals. I want to make a difference where I can," she explains.


She feels she has led a blessed life, with her parents paying for her studies. “I want to give back."

Her dad, Fred, died in 2000 and mom Evelyn was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Her mother's diagnosis hit her hard. She had just qualified as a surgeon and soon realised it was completely different to be a surgeon for others than to treat your own mother. Evelyn turned 80 on 15 August last year and it was a joyous occasion.

Baatjes had dreamed of becoming a physiotherapist when she was at high school in Kraaifontein. “I liked the link with sport and to work with one's hands. Just like in surgery." But she has no qualms about her career choice.

“There are so many branches in breast cancer treatment. You have to look at factors like inheritance and operation techniques, but also metabolism, that is linked to genetic factors," she explains.

She was awarded her doctorate at the end of 2018. Her thesis examined bone health in post-menopausal women who had been treated with a specific anti-oestrogen medication.

She still finds the world of anatomy fairly new and exciting. “It offers growth and development, because I can still learn so much."

She admits finding it difficult to keep all the balls in the air. “Sometimes I feel as if the demands are increasing all the time. But I also often work during my free time and I don't procrastinate. I try to be organised and, for instance, prepare my lunches for the rest of the week on Sundays."

Self-care is important and is the way she handles stress. She makes time for relaxation whenever possible. “Then I cook and spend time with friends and family and we play board games." She jogs to handle her worries and reload her body and soul with happiness hormones (endorphins). And those hands that wield the scalpel so securely, can even prepare home-made jam and chutney. It is a hobby she recently mastered.

She reckons she inherited her work ethic from both parents. Karin is the youngest of five siblings. “My father was a school principal and my mother a teacher. I strive to honour their legacy through service to my fellow man.

I admire people who work effectively under stress and continue to overcome challenges."

She has always worked hard. Relaxing was a luxury. “I had no choice but to focus." In 2000 she was the only female clinical surgical assistant. In her world gender doesn't count, only efficiency. Therefore, she didn't experience overt gender discrimination, says Baatjes.


Baatjes reckons one of the most significant tendencies being predicted in the treatment of breast cancer is “a programme being designed to fit a specific patient's cancer – personal medication or individual care".

She is fulfilled when she can help other people – either as a doctor, or with training, research or charity work. “During my life course people have helped me continuously.

To play my part is like being of service as a deacon in the church."

But she believes everybody can do charity work. “Even if it is only to point out to others that some people need help. You can always donate your time." 

She doesn't want to be praised. A simple “thank you" is enough.

“To see a patient's face light up after a successful operation – that is my biggest motivation."


Photo credit: Damien Schumann