Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Looking back on a richly diverse career
Author: Jackie Pienaar-Brink
Published: 13/12/2019

​When Prof Ben van Heerden looks back on his long career at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), one aspect stands out: His passion to establish new ideas and practices and then move on to the next challenge.

He initially wanted to settle in the countryside as a general practitioner, but eventually nuclear medicine, curriculum renewal and health professions education dominated his career.

Van Heerden, former Director of the MB,ChB Unit, matriculated from DF Malan High School in Bellville and studied medicine at Stellenbosch University (SU).

Nuclear medicine

His career in nuclear medicine took off by chance, he recalls.

He met his wife Marieta, a nursing student, while studying medicine and they were married by the time he completed his degree in 1978. Marieta still had to complete two years of study and he obviously wanted to be at her side. Therefore, he agreed to complete the new Master's degree in Nuclear Medicine at the request of the then departmental head, Prof Hannes Klopper. The field was familiar to Van Heerden, because his father, Flip, used to be the Head of the very same department and he worked there as a school boy. But up to that point, he had never considered it as a career option.

He was surprised to find himself so interested in the field that he and a colleague set up a nuclear medicine department in Windhoek, Namibia, after he had completed his master's degree.

From 1989 to 1991 – after he was also awarded an MMed in Internal Medicine by SU – he became a postdoctoral fellow in nuclear medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the USA after having received a bursary from the Medical Research Council. He had hoped to establish positron-emission tomography (PET) in South Africa upon his return, but to his disappointment there was a lack of government funds.

Yet his time in America was by no means a waste of time. “I also practised general nuclear medicine and it was a phenomenal experience to work under Dr Henry Wagner, one of the fathers of nuclear medicine."

Brain imaging unit

Later he worked as a visiting consultant at KU Leuven in Belgium. “There I learnt a lot more about functional brain imaging, a technique that clearly shows the brain function changes in people with schizophrenia and depression, for example." He also assisted with the establishment of a brain imaging programme for epilepsy surgery.

He brought this expertise back to South Africa and established a functional brain imaging unit at Tygerberg.

School of Medicine

In 2001, his career path changed significantly when the Faculty was restructured into five schools. His decision to apply for the position as first Head of the School of Medicine was made easier by the fact that the brain imaging unit had already been well established by then.

In his new capacity Van Heerden was responsible for, among other things, the MB,ChB programme and the implementation of its brand new curriculum. In 2008 he had to manage a revised version of this curriculum. “This all helped me to achieve a reasonable level of expertise in terms of the development of curriculums and training materials," he says.

At the end of his five-year term, his career unexpectedly took off in a different direction. When a new rector was appointed at SU, the management structure of the FMHS was reorganised according to the main functions of the university and the five schools were dissolved.

Health professions education and the MB,ChB programme

What started as an idea – namely a centre for health professions education – now became a reality, with Van Heerden as its first Director. “At that stage, the way people were being trained in health professions was evolving into a discipline globally," he explains the purpose of the centre.

Although the centre had small beginnings, it had a clear vision. “We wanted to develop an academic centre where research could be done and we introduced a degree course early on. It was later expanded into a PhD."

Van Heerden also still managed the MB,ChB programme. By 2015, this component was removed from the centre due to fears that it would be seen as the real focus, whereas the centre is aimed at all health professions.

“I decided it was time to introduce new blood and made way for my deputy, the educationist Prof Susan van Schalkwyk," Van Heerden explains his decision to focus exclusively on the MB,ChB programme.

A career highlight was undoubtedly when he discovered his love for education, says the man with more than 100 presentations worldwide and 44 published peer-reviewed articles under his belt.

A proud legacy

Van Heerden and his wife live in Boston, Bellville, and have two daughters, Alet and Daphne.

He remembers the long hours he had to work over the years. Once Alet even asked her mom when Dad would visit them again. “It was tough, but I think we maintained a fairly good balance. Somewhere along the way we planted a seed, because both our daughters went on to study medicine at Stellenbosch."

Van Heerden speaks with great compassion about Alet's husband Shaun, who lives with cystic fibrosis, his successful lung transplant, and the memorable moment when the couple's two daughters were born after successful in vitro fertilisation treatment.

After years of hard work, Van Heerden's retirement is beckoning.

How does he feel about retirement?

He lowers his head. “It's a difficult question." Then: “You know, I gave what I could. I'm looking forward to my retirement, but I'm also a little nervous about how I will keep busy."

Fortunately he loves reading, especially non-fiction, and he's a keen photographer. He and his wife like travelling and their favourite holiday destinations are England and Scotland. They also plan to explore large parts of South Africa.

Cooking is another passion he shares with his wife. “I'm fond of exotic and spicy food and love to experiment with Moroccan and Eastern dishes," he says.

He is very positive about the future of the FMHS for several reasons.

“Over the years, we positioned ourselves well within the socio-political context of the country. When I was appointed as the Head of the School of Medicine in 2001, we intentionally adjusted the selection processes to make better provision for students from previously excluded groups. The student body was 90% white at the time and it now consists of 70% black, coloured and Indian students."

It was a well-planned process, he emphasises, and always based on merit.

“This is reflected in the success rate of our students."

The Faculty has also advanced considerably in terms of health professions education, more than other faculties in the country, he says with obvious pride.

He believes passionately that the radically new curriculum being developed for medicine will showcase how modern education techniques can be used to train medical professionals. “There will be a focus on the key diseases that practitioners in South Africa encounter every day."

And he is excited about the developments in the field of basic sciences. “The new facility that will be built for basic sciences will bring us on par with the best in the world."

Photo credit: Damien Schumann