Paying it forward in health care education

Professor Jennifer Jelsma worked with disabled combatants after the bush war. (Photo: David Harrison)

Professor Jennifer Jelsma worked with disabled combatants after the bush war. (Photo: David Harrison)

Professor Jennifer Jelsma was head of postgraduate education at the department of health and rehabilitation sciences in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT) for several years. She started her academic career at Stellenbosch University, where she was invited back as a junior lecturer after completing her BSc (Physiotherapy). 

One of five daughters with a father who believed in empowering his children through education, she and three of her sisters are now professionals in the health care sector. 

While her passion lies in health care, she developed a fascination for teaching too, and completed a postgraduate diploma in education at the University of South Africa in 1973. Subsequent academic achievements include a diploma in international medical research ethics from UCT, an MPhil from the University of Zimbabwe in 1997, and a PhD from the Catholic University of Leuven in 2002. 

Jelsma was employed by Oxfam in 1981 to work with disabled combatants in Zimbabwe, after the bush war. “I soon realised that there was a serious lack of rehabilitation capacity, and together with the Zimbabwean ministry of health, we set about developing a training course for rehabilitation technicians who could provide services to those with disabilities in rural areas,” she says. 

“Unfortunately, we didn’t document this process, our challenges or our successes, which means that the knowledge and insights we gained were never shared with others. This taught me one of the most important lessons of my career: unless efforts to improve services and the care of patients are researched and documented, the broader community cannot benefit from your knowledge and experiences.” 

Once she had established the training programme in Zimbabwe, Jelsma moved across to the University of Zimbabwe, where she joined the recently established rehabilitation department, which had been set up to provide physiotherapy and occupational therapy support to rehabilitation technicians, particularly those working in outlying districts. It was through this work that she achieved her master’s in physiotherapy, as well as being awarded a University Distinguished Teacher’s Award in 1998.

After completing her PhD in Belgium, she joined UCT in 2002, where her primary roles are teaching and research. 

“My main focus at present is the supervision of about 14 postgraduate students, including nine PhD students,” she says. “I also teach research methodology to the undergraduate rehabilitation students. 

In addition to teaching, most of my time is spent in meeting with students, planning their research activities, analysing their data and reviewing the write-ups of their theses. 

“The research that we do is related primarily to determining the impact of health conditions on the functioning of individuals and exploring ways in which we can improve the day-to-day health related quality of life of those with disability, and their families.  Different students have examined the functioning of a wide range of people, from children with cerebral palsy in townships in Harare, Zimbabwe to women attending chronic care and HIV clinics in urban and rural areas and adults who have had a stroke,” she says.

“We are in the process of transforming the work that we do at UCT in order to make it ever more relevant to our context in South Africa. In order to do so, we need to be able generate new knowledge and I believe this is an essential role of all university graduates and academics. Particularly, emerging researchers need to be empowered with excellent research skills to allow them to generate locally relevant research.   

“I really enjoy working with my postgraduate students who are drawn from across South Africa and the African continent.  They are constantly challenging me to rethink my own preconceptions and to work with them to produce new and exciting interpretations of the data that they collect.” 

It’s clear that Jelsma’s students are close to her heart, and that working with them inspires her. She views her greatest achievements not in terms of her academic success, but rather in terms of the support that she has been able to offer her students and colleagues to help them achieve their goals. “As far as possible, I keep up a relationship with my students after graduation and encourage them to publish their findings in respected journals,” she says. “Of the students that I have worked with, one is a dean of a health science faculty, four are heads of academic divisions and several others have been promoted subsequent to obtaining higher degrees and publishing their results.”