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Transnet Bids Farewell to Dr Coetzee

In the month of March 2014, Transnet SOC Ltd will bid farewell to one of its passionate and dedicated long serving member of staff Dr Lynette Coetzee. Dr Coetzee is founder and project manager of the ‘train of hope’ Phelophepa and Portfolio manager for Health, at the Transnet Foundation. For 20 years, she has successfully headed the Phelophepa initiative and as she exits Transnet on retirement, she takes us through her experiences with the project that has been and will forever remain close to her heart.

“The one memory I will always carry around with me about Phelophepa is the morning when the then three coach train was stationed at Braamfontein for servicing in 1993. The people had heard the train was around and had gathered outside to receive treatment. We had to haul these coaches back to Johannesburg station and arranged a train to take all the patients to JHB as well.  However, at 24:00 that evening almost 1000 patients had spectacles and I had a shoe box full of cash for our optical services! 

Starting the 1994 journey with the officially inaugurated Transnet-Phelophepa comprising thirteen coaches, our first stop was in the Free State.  Early in the morning I looked out of my cubicle I found two queues; one for black people and another for white people. I quickly got over my shock, approached them, and I said that ‘this is the people’s train and we will only have one queue’. With that I had put the seal of Phelophepa and it has remained that way to this day ‘the people’s train’,” says the emotional Dr Coetzee.

She joined Transnet as punch operator/ data capturer in 1968, climbed steadily the ladder of success with positions such as chief librarian and head of corporate social investment in her pocket. In 1986 Dr Coetzee obtained a degree in Library and Museum Science and later attained a honours degree in Labour Relations.

In April 1990 she was approached by the then managing director of Transnet to develop a CSI portfolio and it was during this period that the possibility of a health train came up. Three coaches were refurbished by Transnet Rail Engineering in 1992 thereby planting the seeds of the Phelophepa health train.  

“We initially started with 13 staff members and today we have 22 members of staff and 15 security personnel on each train. At every station we have between 80 and 90 locals including interpreters, workers identified by service providers, kitchen staff; people literally fight to work on the trains.  The spirit of Ubuntu and care between members of staff and the communities is what makes Phelophepa what it is. The staff works long hours and we are never short of staff, if there is a need, we send out an SOS and there is always someone to fill in,’’ explains Dr Coetzee.

Over the years, Phelophepa has been hailed for its advanced facilities and high levels of professionalism in the provision of primary healthcare. The care provided by Phelophepa has been aligned with  the country’s National Department of Health’s need to promote cost-effective primary healthcare   as well as giving of incentives for health promotion and disease prevention at household and community level.

The most crucial part of the train is the education and understanding of the basic healthcare that is given to the community. With the community equipped with health education, Dr Coetzee indicates that since Phelophepa’s inception; the prevention of disease gap has been bridged and also worth noting is the reduction in the number of  rural babies  that used to die from preventable diseases such as diarrhea.

“To date, we have treated almost a million people on the train since the train’s launch and that together with outreach programmes with schools, prisons, retirement villages and farms, the total number comes to six million people. We now have two brand new trains as the old one has been upgraded and refurbished to the same technical advanced level as the new one.

 “When the train reaches a station, some staff members go out to reach the learners at school and the people that cannot access the services at the train itself. We also have a mobile health clinic.  The outreach for teenagers provides counselling on issues to do with bullying and self-esteem and we leave behind literature for them,’’ says the doctor.

As with any project, with it come challenges and incidents but Dr Coetzee is quick to point out that the team has had no major incidents in the past 20 years because the train belongs to the people. “We listen to the people and do not dictate to them,’’ adds the doctor.

“The only challenges include the weather; we often encounter either extreme cold or heat. The roads also hamper us in reaching the remote places and the bad roads sometimes result in one or two occasional car accidents on rural roads. But that said I cannot put anything on the table as a big challenge that we have had to face. The problems are very minimal and mostly it has been smooth sailing. Twenty years is a long time and while different management has come and gone I have had to make sure the train continues to run’’.

Dr Coetzee proudly speaks about the Honor Society of Nursing honorary membership Award from Sigma Theta Tau International which was presented to her in November 2013 in the USA in recognition to her contribution to primary healthcare. She describes the recognition from the Thetha Tau as a ‘crown jewel’ of her career and has had plans before her final exit to ensure that Transnet benefits from Sigma.

“We currently have a teenage healthcare programme running in the rural areas and our strategy is to provide a holistic, innovative programme to teenage girls to assist them with better menstrual management practices.  One of the innovations is to provide safe, well-researched, re-usable menstrual cups to the teens. One of the benefits of the these cups  in  rural areas is  that one cup can last up to 10 years added to the fact that they are easy to clean and have no known  side effects.

“We have been conducting studies and have reached approximately 12 000 girls and the feedback has been overwhelming. It is a good concept and we are at the stage where we about to do scientific research and this is where, we hope Sigma will come in with the scientific expertise and provide us with an avenue to clinical research. Meetings have been arranged with the organisation’s newly elected president Professor Hester Klopper and we hope that a strong partnership will be built,’’ Dr Coetzee says.

After her exit from Transnet, Dr Coetzee in March will be opening her own integral coaching practice. “I have always been a warrior and I am always thinking about what I can do to enhance people’s lives. I will continue to be involved in people development and in my new journey I will be helping people identify who they are and develop whatever they want to be. The core is about helping people change their structure of interpretation and realise their own self-worth,’’ smiles Dr Coetzee.

In what she describes as what has been an awesome, humbling and honorable experience, Dr Lynette becomes emotional when she looks back at the legacy she has built and is leaving behind.

“It took 20 years to build this legacy and I haven’t done it on my own, we did it as a team. No high paying job could ever compete with what I had - I had it all.

“My advice to the person taking over from me is that they do not try and walk in my shoes. Pace your own way because everybody brings their own value and when you look over your shoulder, you lose focus’’.

Even though I have prepared for it, I think I will cry when I finally leave. The train is so much a part of me and to let go will take some courage. But I am also enthusiastic to handover to younger people. The spirit and foundation that we have built over the years will always be there. You need to move backwards in order to give to others and that is what I have done,’’ Dr Coetzee ends with a tear.

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