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Sindi van Zyl: The ‘people’s doctor’ who revealed her own struggles

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South Africans are mourning the woman who became known as “the people’s doctor”, after she died at the age of 45 from Covid-19-related complications. Vauldi Carelse looks at what made Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl so special.

Everyone it seemed had their own Sindi story and they have been taking to Twitter this week to share them.

This was the medium after all that Dr van Zyl used to reach out to her hundreds of thousands of followers.

The Duchess of Healing – as she called herself on Twitter – would counsel, advise and support many who might not have had access to medical resources in South Africa and beyond.

She was born in Zimbabwe but trained and practised in South Africa as an HIV public health clinician and general practitioner.

A decade ago she made a decision to turn to social media to raise greater awareness about HIV/Aids and mental health issues and also to spread her own brand of kindness

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She made time for everyone, even weirdos like me, sitting 8,000km away in the desert”

Dave Luis, who is based in Dubai, was helped by Dr Van Zyl and recalls that she had a remarkable ability to connect to people who needed help.

He first encountered her when she was discussing the possible harmful side-effects of the overuse of Grand-Pa headache powders and the nature of addiction.

Mr Luis revealed that he was a recovering addict and started a conversation with Dr Van Zyl. She asked him if he would talk to a patient of hers about addiction.

“She made time for everyone, even weirdos like me, sitting 8,000km away in the desert,” he says of someone who ended up becoming a friend.

‘Liker of things fabulous’

From learning how to be a DJ, to hosting her weekly talk show Sidebar with Sindi on Johannesburg station Kaya FM, at the centre of Dr Van Zyl’s life was her commitment to her patients and her love for her family.

“She relished all her roles – daughter, friend, researcher, sister, aunt, cousin, doctor, speaker, entrepreneur, student, social butterfly, perfumista, deejay and chief liker of things fabulous – but truly, she was in her element as a mother and wife,” Kaya FM said in its tribute to her.

Dr Van Zyl’s two children, Nandi and Manie, regularly made appearances on her Twitter timeline.

She was open about suffering from postnatal depression but she used that experience to help mothers who reached out to her.

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When you are sick, you are very vulnerable. That’s the reason why I spent hours on my phone helping strangers”

The death of her own mother affected her deeply and she often talked about how she got professional help. Of the thousands of stories shared in the days following her death, so many recounted how she counselled them through their depression.

At an awards ceremony three years ago, Dr Van Zyl explained that her approach to medicine came from an experience that she had aged 19.

She did not explain why she was being treated but said that doctors and nurses had decided “they were not going to save my life”.

“I decided then that when I become a medical doctor, I don’t want anyone to be in a situation where they are helpless and they don’t know what to do.

“When you are sick, you are very vulnerable. That’s the reason why I spent hours on my phone helping strangers from all over South Africa and the world because of what I went through.”

Her friend, businesswoman Farah Fortune met Dr Van Zyl at a photoshoot in 2018. She says she could never understand where the doctor found the time to interact with so many people.

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image captionFarah Fortune (far left) received an award from Glamour magazine along with Dr Van Zyl (fourth from left) in 2018

She had a busy life but she did not publicise all the work she did, from donating to causes to helping patients with money for a taxi, according to Ms Fortune.

She explains her friend’s drive as being a result of her own mental health struggles.

“She went through a period in her life where she went through depression and it took her a long time to come out of it. And when she came out of it, she wanted to do absolutely everything,” she told the BBC.

Her colleague, Dr Cephas Chikanda, said he and others have learned so much from the way she practised medicine.

“She wanted to hear your story and she also shared her stories. She was generous in sharing information,” he told a service in Johannesburg on Thursday.

Dr Van Zyl contracted Covid-19 in February and spent several weeks in the intensive care unit. The last two months of her life were spent in a local hospital.

‘Love like Sindi did’

Speaking during her memorial service on Thursday, her husband, Marinus van Zyl, recalled that one of the nurses in the ward where she was treated asked: “What makes Sindi so special?”

His answer was her ability to love people, many people. And he challenged everyone to “‘love like Sindi did”.

Her two young children also paid tribute to their mother. Her son Manie, 10, while wiping tears from his cheeks, described her as a good person. “But all good things need to come to an end”, he said with remarkable composure and maturity.

While her daughter, Nandi, 13, remembered how her mother made all her patients feel like family.

In her last few days she was still referring her patients to other doctors so they would get the help they needed.

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A memorial page dedicated to Dr Van Zyl has thousands of entries – from friends, to students, to strangers – all touched in some way by her apparently boundless energy.

Zimkita Makwetu said that she was helped when she “was at the brink of ending my life, at a very very dark phase”.

“I have had immense support, direct access to her and the faith and belief that I too would overcome depression and look back at the lessons in awe.”

While Faith Mamphoka called her a beautiful spirit: “Always kind, always ready to make you smile. Selfless and so open. Thank you for always answering my silly questions with excitement every time. Thank you for treating all of us like you knew us all.”

Her father, Muchadeyi Masunda, a Zimbabwean businessman and politician, told a service held for his daughter that she was the “ultimate epitome of what my grandmother used to drum into us: Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which means, in Zulu: “I am because you are”.

In other words, he said, “whatever it is you seek to achieve, you cannot achieve it on your own”.

She lived her life by this principle and when medical bills started to pile up from her long stay in hospital, her family turned to the community that Dr Van Zyl had cultivated over the years.

People donated over $70,000 (£51,000) in just one day to the #GiftSindiLife campaign.

It was a testimony to what she meant to so many people and it is hoped that through a foundation the influence of the Duchess of Healing will live on.

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