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Enthusiasm for discipline drives new Head of Forensic Pathology
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie - Edna Ellman
Published: 16/02/2023

​​​Mindset is everything. A powerful mind can achieve anything, and if the right mindset is the driving force behind an entire team, achievement is effortless and success inevitable.

These words from Dr Janette Verster, who has been head of the Division of Forensic Medicine at the Department of Pathology within the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences since June 2022, comes after being at the helm as acting head for 17 months during a challenging period.

“My team lived through a massive trauma after the unfortunate demise of our colleague and leader, Professor Johan Dempers, in January 2021. For an extended period, we only had two qualified medical specialists available, and the entire team put their heads and hands together, not only ensuring the continuation of our intense postgraduate training programme, as well as our undergraduate programme, but also expanding on the existing academic programme and continuously motivating one another with new ideas on how to further improve the service through imaging and technology. I am proud of what the team achieved during the past two years, despite unfathomable hardship."

For Verster, who grew up in Kuils River in the Western Cape, becoming a medical doctor was a dream that started as a young girl.

“During my school career, I always wanted to become a paediatrician. As an undergraduate student I ended up doing an elective in Forensic Medicine. My external supervisor during my elective period was the late Professor Dempers, who had immense passion for this line of work, and the ability to enthuse others around him, and thus my deep interest in the field of Forensic Medicine was born," she says. Professor Dempers, a respected pathologist and the former head of the department, who played an essential role in providing evidence in high-profile cases, died following a battle with Covid-19.

“Prior to working in the field of forensic pathology, I was involved in neonatal resuscitation almost daily; this, together with my love for paediatrics in general, has culminated in a deep interest in paediatric forensic pathology, which remains one of my favourite topics in my field of work."

Verster says she also has a keen interest in forensic imaging and radiology. “I took six months of unpaid leave in 2018 and worked at the Institute of Legal Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, where I exclusively interpreted and reported on post-mortem Computed Tomography (PMCT) Scans and obtained a Certificate of Advanced Studies (CAS) (Forensic Imaging and Virtopsy) at the university – I'm not aware of any similar courses or qualifications in South Africa."

Verster completed her MBChB degree at Stellenbosch University in 2005, followed by postgraduate studies until 2012 and started working at the university in 2016. Her duties as head of department include managing budgets, appointments, the operational matters of the division and administrative duties. As clinical manager she oversees the medical specialists in the unit, postgraduate students specialising in Forensic Pathology, the academic programme of the Division, research within the Division and training of undergraduate medical students.

Verster's short-term plans include improving on service delivery, increasing international collaboration, introducing innovative technological advancements and advanced imaging, and establishing a strong research culture and love for academic literature amongst staff.

In the longer term she envisages expanding the division's research involvement and growing its publication record. “Forensic pathology is a major under-researched field in South Africa, and I am committed to making significant contributions to the development of relevant research in forensic medicine, especially in post-mortem imaging. I have a keen interest in undergraduate teaching and the ongoing development of teaching skills conforming to current national and international trends.

“I would definitely like to remain involved in complicated paediatric cases and the practical training of postgraduate students with regards to the management of complex paediatric cases.

“I have mastered meticulous in situ infant dissection techniques and am particularly confident in dissection of the infant cardiovascular system and cases of congenital cardiac malformation and paediatric open-heart surgery."

As chair of the child death review process at the Tygerberg Forensic Pathology Service in the Western Cape, which she started in 2017, she aims to develop a specialised death review process for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which involves all children from birth to 18 years of age.

“These death review processes should also be expanded to include femicide/gender-based violence review and trauma mortality review panel discussions to improve the health referral system, combat health systems failures, assist the judicial system and provide feedback to the greater community in order to improve community structures or prevent future trauma and fatal accidents as far as humanly possible."

Verster enjoys painting, bird watching and bushveld holidays during her downtime and is currently studying German to assist with international relations. “Through realistic sketching and painting I have greatly improved my ability to make detailed observations. I found this particularly helpful in my work as a forensic pathologist."

Asked about what drives her, she says “the quest for new challenges, continuous development and achievement, success – not necessarily my own, but to keep others motivated and see them excel."