Establishing CHOC: 1979 - 1981

Prof Macdougall with board member Nagm AzarProf Macdougall with board member Nagm AzarIt was Prof Lorna MacDougall’s encouragement and inspiration that led a small group of parents to form CHOC in Johannesburg in 1979. Scottish by birth, Prof MacDougall spent years working in East Africa and then doing specialist training in the US before coming to South Africa. She was instrumental in getting a dedicated haematology and oncology clinic established in the new Johannesburg Hospital.

Founding CHOC member Sadie Cutland explains: “In 1978, when our seven-year-old daughter Hilary was diagnosed with bone marrow failure, which was very rare, there wasn’t today’s medical technology with bone marrow transplants and advanced treatment. At first Hilary was admitted into the old Transvaal Memorial Hospital. We had a very rough time with the facilities being very basic and parents not being allowed to stay overnight.

“Then in 1979, the new Johannesburg General Hospital opened and the paediatric unit was moved there. One day, as we were leaving a consultation with Prof MacDougall, she looked me straight in the eyes and asked: “How are you?” and I replied: “I feel so alone.” Then she asked me, ”Why?” And I said: “Well, I have met parents of children with leukaemia and other kinds of cancers but I haven’t met another parent of a child with aplastic anaemia. Then Prof MacDougill mentioned that in the US there were parent support groups for families of children with cancer. That was the seed that led us to decide to start one. When thinking about a name we asked her what we should call the group and she took us outside Ward 294. There above the entrance was the sign: Childrens Haematology Oncology Clinic, and thus CHOC was born.

“By that stage we were two years down the line with treatment and I was aware that for leukaemia the treatment could be three years and longer. The ward was very clinical and we realised that for such long periods of hospitalisation a much more child-friendly environment was needed so we started to add some ward decorations.”

An early milestone occurred in 1981 when the Johannesburg Hospital held a Debutantes’ Ball, with CHOC chosen as the beneficiary of the funds, which amounted to about R31 000 (probably equivalent to about half a million rand in today’s money). This money was held within the Wits University Trust, to fund research and support for the clinics.  

However, unfortunately one of the debs approached the National Cancer Association – the forerunner of CANSA – for money, which led to the NCA objecting to CHOC and threatening to have all NCA funding for research withdrawn from Wits University. At this point most of the existing committee decided they were not willing to get involved in a fight with NCA and dropped away. 

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