The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center at the Department of Pain and Palliative Care in Bethesda, Maryland, recently offered Stellenbosch University PhD graduate Ronita Mahilall a two-year post-doctorate fellowship. She will be taking up this post in December 2022.
The call from the NIH was unsolicited but nevertheless welcomed as it offers Ronita the opportunity to continue her pioneering work in integrating the spiritual aspect of palliative care into academic and professional training in South Africa and globally.
Ronita attributes the American institutes’ interest in her to the high academic profile she achieved as a result of Stellenbosch University’s practice of encouraging scholars to publish their work in academic journals concurrently to writing up their thesis.
A PhD by publication ensures that the research work gain traction with a global audience compared to the conventional form of a PhD thesis that may have a limited readership and invariably gathers dust on a library shelf.
Accordingly, Ronita produced five published peerreviewed journal articles in 16 months, testing her findings in the court of international academic opinion.
“If not for Stellenbosch University, I would not have been offered the present opportunity to set out on an academic career at NIH,” she says.
Ronita also praises Stellenbosch University for fostering an applied approach in its scholarship training.
She describes how this led her to choose Stellenbosch University for her PhD over rival South African universities, which, in her opinion, have a more “rigid approach”.
“By contrast, Stellenbosch University treats its PhD candidates like adults, allowing them to test the waters, consider alternative practice, and reshape current practices,” she continued.
This engagement with reshaping practice has been crucial for Ronita who, as the CEO of St Luke’s Combined Hospices in Cape Town, has sought to foster greater acknowledgment of the role played by those providing spiritual care in the hospice palliative-care environment.
She describes how the spiritual aspect of palliative care – that is, care for the terminally ill and their relatives – is under-recognised compared to the medical, psychosocial and bereavement aspects. In an effort to remedy this, Ronita has sought to ensure that spiritual care providers are equipped with the appropriate skills and knowledge, and attend to the self-care needs of those managing terminal illness and death, which is an already emotionally charged and psychologically draining field of practice.
In particular, she has sought to elevate the status of the spiritual aspect of palliative care so that instead of being derided as some kind of “mystical” approach, it is understood as offering a perspective and set of tools for addressing culturally and contextually sensitive end-of-life care interventions.
In this regard and referencing the importance of ubuntu in the African context, Ronita asserts that the spiritual dimension is already in many people’s DNA, “It is part of who we are.”
“So, the goal is to bring this aspect of our spirituality and culture to the fore and empower health care providers who are attending to the spiritual needs of the terminally ill, by equipping them with the skills to promote this approach as a valid and important one,” she says.
With this in mind, another reason that she chose Stellenbosch University’s Department of Psychology was so that she could undertake her PhD under Prof Leslie Swartz, whom she describes as a supervisor who understands palliative care and its spiritual aspect, having himself worked closely with St Luke’s Combined Hospices.
Having completed her doctorate, Ronita quickly adopted the role of scholar-practitioner, helping to introduce palliative care into the social-work curriculum at the University of Cape Town; playing a role in certificating the palliative care course at Stellenbosch University; and facilitating workshops for third-year medical students as a guest lecturer at SU.
She has also increasingly engaged on the international stage, presenting virtually at the 6th International Conference on the International Network of the Study of Spirituality in London and, most recently, speaking at a global meeting of the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry in the Netherlands.
Ronita says that the next step in her career is “to bring the African voice to the Global North in the field of spirituality and palliative care”. In this regard, she says that the post-doctorate at NIH “will empower me with more skills and knowledge”.
At the same time, she refuses to see her career trajectory only within the traditional confines of academia: “My goal is to be a scholar-practitioner, that is, someone who is engaged in the change itself, as well as being an agent of that change as an academic.”
“Those who seek to bring about social change are likely to be more effective in their efforts if they have an intimate knowledge of the beneficiaries themselves,” Ronita says.
- Writer: Mark Paterson
- This is the first issue of our magazine for Maties alumni, and many of the stories reflect the resilience of the individual writ large.
If you are seeking a few life hacks or simple reminders about turning adversity into opportunity, do read on, Maties!