Brave quadriplegic is head of radiology


Life was great. He excelled in his studies and as an athlete at school. As a student, he followed a balanced lifestyle.

But at the age of 22, when he was at the beginning of his second GP year, everything changed in the blink of an eye.

A car accident during December 2006 in Willows, Bloemfontein, led to dr. Ambrosius Swartbooi (currently 39) is paralyzed. At the time, he was studying medicine at Kovsies.

Today he is the head of the radiology department at the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Hospital (RMSH) in Kimberley. This department currently has the only government facilities that offer complete radiology services for patients in the Northern Cape.

For anything other than x-rays, patients have to travel to Kimberley from as far away as Alexander Bay/ Port Nolloth. Patients are then almost a week away from their homes. Some patients drive up to 1,000 kilometers for services that are only available in Kimberley.

It was initially his dream to specialize in midwifery, but because he was a quadriplegic after the accident, these plans were derailed.

Dr. However, Swartbooi never lost heart and is today a highly respected physician.

For him, after the accident, it wasn’t about what he couldn’t do, but rather about what he could still do.

“One simply has to try.

“I never lay down”, he says. “I also focused for a long time on getting others, who are in the same boat as me, to move.”

It saddened him to see how many of them simply gave up and isolated themselves.

After the accident, he was admitted to Mediclinic Bloemfontein for two months, of which he was in the intensive care unit for one month. After that he spent three months in the Pasteur rehabilitation centre, also in Bloemfontein.

Due to the nature of the matter, he could not complete his second year internship, but cleared it with the Medical Council of South Africa. This enabled him to continue as a medic and also offered him the option to specialize.

Because of his disability and because he is wheelchair-bound, there were only three medical fields in which he could study further: psychiatry, pathology and radiology.

He chose radiology.

His marriage in 2007 to Susan Morgan, a nurse originally from Kimberley, was a highlight for him.

Dr. Swartbooi never sat still in his life. He grew up in Namibia and in 2000, at the age of 16, was head boy of Mariental High School before he went to Bloemfontein to study at the University of the Free State.

He was selected for the South athletics teams to compete at national level from 1998-2000 and was selected for the under-15 and under-16 Namibian rugby tour teams in 1999 and 2000 to represent the country.

“I had to give up my place in the team in 2000 because it clashed with the matric exam dates”.

He is still a sports enthusiast, but unfortunately not all sports stadiums are wheelchair friendly.

After he and Susan got married, in 2008 he started working in the office of the superintendent of the Universitas Hospital.

However, he realized that administrative work was not his choice. Today he is happily in the radiology department.

His work is greatly facilitated by modern technology and digital platforms, with the interpretation of scans, x-rays, sonar examinations, mammograms, CT and MRI scans, among others.

He was appointed head of radiology in December 2021.

Passionate about sharing his knowledge

Dr. Swartbooi is also involved in the academic development of medical officers in his unit, the compilation of lectures for third- and fifth-year medical students at the UFS, as well as the compilation and marking of examination papers.

He would like to ensure that there are permanently at least two specialists and ten medical officers in his unit who can also work in Upington.

He currently tries to do an outreach to the Dr Harry Surtie Hospital in Upington at least twice a year. So in November last year, he did 100 patient scans in a period of one week.

“There is always a demand for taking services to the community,” he says.

He is also looking at obtaining full accreditation to start full specialist training in Kimberley through the UFS.

Is he angry with the students?

“No, what”, he says calmly.

It is clear that working as a medic is a vocation for him.

Because patients drive so far to come for imaging – sometimes just for a short examination – he is of the opinion that everyone deserves his time and attention.

Travel is not a problem

Dr. Swartbooi leads a very independent existence and sometimes travels long distances for his work.

He drives in a specially adapted and converted car imported from England, because it would be cheaper than having such a car built locally. The car has been converted in such a way that his wife can also drive it. Behind is place in which his wheelchair can be loaded. The car is driven with manual controls.

He, typically Namibian, is not at all afraid of long distances such as driving from Kimberley to Windhoek and was planning to travel to Namibia with his wife the day after our conversation.

And yes, he misses the desert land. But the training program for doctors is now well established after ten years, so it would be difficult to go back immediately.

Love for the medical profession

Where did his love for the medical profession originate?

“My mother was a nurse and my father a teacher. To keep us busy I counted pills in the clinic in the afternoons and later rode with her when she went to hold bush clinics on farm settlements. Sometimes I rode along in the ambulance when there was no one to look after me. That’s where my interest in the medical profession began.”

Was he ever discouraged during his life’s journey?

“I was never really left on my own. The guys from human resources and the medical superintendent of the Universitas Hospital, where I worked, were supportive and there for me from the beginning. Especially with the granting of a year’s lung capacity leave and the administrative post with which they met me and for which I will always be grateful.

“The whole thing is that when you recover after such an accident, the shock is there, but my family and friends supported me. Susan was with me when the accident happened and assisted me. She injured her hip, tailbone and pelvis but she recovered. We only got engaged later.

Doctors who emigrate

Regarding all the doctors who are looking for greener pastures overseas, he says the exodus is a great pity after everything that contributed to their training. Often they don’t think twice before starting work in the private sector. This while they can play such a critical role in state health.

“The guys are looking for training jobs under the state’s banner and the moment they get their degree, they go to the private sector. Training facilities are collapsing because there are not enough specialists to keep them going, and the numbers of those that are still functioning are being reduced. Pressure on service delivery is thus increasing and waiting times are getting longer for patients as well as training posts.

“There is a saying that some of the doctors use which reads: ‘Friday degree, Monday private’.”

Yet there are doctors who continue to work for the state. He thinks the reason for that is that despite the frustrations, one has to face more challenges in public health and there is greater fulfillment.

He has a very happy family

He and Susan do not have children together, but they raised her daughter from a previous relationship together.

However, there is no question of a quiet household.

“There are more than enough children in the family to keep us busy.”

Advice for those in the same boat

There are several phases through which one must work after such an accident. His advice to people who have the same experiences he had is to see how quickly you can get through the grieving process from shock to acceptance.

“One should also not pretend that one is okay if it is not the case. Talk about your feelings and don’t lie to yourself and others.

“Tackling things day by day. One gets angry and depressed, but this is all part of the grieving process.” Always remember that support is a two-way street. Do what you can, no matter how little, to ease the burden on those who help you.

He also points out to young people that education offers options in life and leads to success.

“Do not be in a hurry for worldly things. Aim for twelve years at school and three to six years at University.

“After that, you still have two-thirds of your life left to fulfill your heart’s desires. Where would I have ended up after such a big accident if it hadn’t been for my learning?”