Christable Semondile, right, interim director of the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation in Africa, chats with Dr. Kabelo Mputsoe, a clinical and radiation oncologist at a Baylor College of Medicine/Bristol Myers Squibb Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence, during a recent trip to Africa.

News & Perspectives

Answering the urgent call for more hematologists in Africa

More hematologists are desperately needed in Africa. Here’s how the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation is helping

October 26, 2023     

Christable Semondile knows the importance of hope.

As the interim director of the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation in Africa, she has long seen hope in the work being done to diagnose, treat and support multiple myeloma patients there.

Semondile sees it in the healthcare practitioners who are being trained to understand a multiple myeloma patient’s journey, including barriers they face for early diagnosis and treatment. She sees it in the doctors selected to serve as fellows in a country where there are far too few hematologists. And she sees it in other efforts that support patients and their families.

But most of all, she sees it in the eyes of patients in Africa who are fighting a disease that isn’t curable but can be endured with proper treatment and support.

Semondile is so committed to the BMS Foundation’s work with multiple myeloma and other programs in the country, she stepped away from duties she had in other countries. “I dedicated myself to Africa,” she said. 

She believes the BMS Foundation’s commitment to multiple myeloma can help improve patients’ quality of life and give them more time with their loved ones. 

Investing in programs to meet patients’ needs

Multiple myeloma is one of the focus areas of the BMS Foundation’s Global Cancer Disparities Africa program, which launched in 2016 with a new mandate to focus on cancers. The BMS Foundation supports several programs that are focused on training medical professionals who treat the condition and on efforts that support patients and their families.

The broadest of those is Collaboration for Multiple Myeloma ABCDES (Awareness and Building Capacity to Diagnose Early and Support) Programme, which has two complementary initiatives:

  • Healthcare Practitioner Training Project that includes research studies to understand barriers to early diagnosis and care, improving education at post-graduate levels, and reviewing training for healthcare practitioners who work with multiple myeloma patients.
  • Patient Support and Survivorship Interventions Project that includes assessing disease awareness and needs of patients and their families, improving access to palliative care for multiple myeloma patients, and support groups for patients and their families.

Semondile said the program also helps improve access to rehabilitation services for patients, like wheelchairs, walkers and other necessities.

It even paid for two hotel rooms for two years, so patients being treated at a hospital can stay a night or two across the street from the facility after getting chemo or other treatment. This is especially helpful for out-of-town patients who need to rest before traveling home or for those who have follow-up appointments the next day. 

Fellowship program is ‘highlight’ of efforts

The need for hematologists in South Africa is especially high. 

“There are 49 qualified clinical hematologists in South Africa, which has a population of 60 million.”
Christable Semondile, interim director, Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation

That’s why the seven fellows who are part of a three-year program “are the highlight of what we’ve done in South Africa” Semondile said. The program is through the South African Clinical Hematology Society, which received a grant from the BMS Foundation.

One of those fellows, Dr. Romana Jassat, said she was influenced by her family, particularly her father, to go into medicine. One of her early rotations was in hematology, which she said allowed her to build more personal relationships with her patients. “You get to know them and you get to know their families,” Jassat said.

Dr. Romana Jassat, a fellow in the multiple myeloma program, said she appreciates being able to build personal relationships with patients and their families. She was part of a fellowship program through the South African Clinical Hematology Society, which received a grant from the BMS Foundation.

Because cancer doesn’t discriminate, she saw patients who were young, old, those with multiple myeloma and those with other blood diseases. The commonality was the bravery they showed despite their health concerns.

“They are carrying on with their daily life, then they’re handed a terrible diagnosis,” Jassat, 33, said. “They know in a way that they’re dying every day.” 

She said the fellowship gave her many opportunities, including being part of a team that performed a stem cell transplant on a teenage boy with acute myeloid leukemia whose older brother was the donor. The patient is currently in remission and has returned to school.

“When things get too hard,” she said. “I think about him.”

Getting more time with loved ones

Dr. Mahlatse Mankgele, another fellow in the program, learned about biology from his mother, who is a high school teacher. “She would always teach me more and above what was expected for my level of schooling,” he said.

Because of that, and the fact there were very few doctors in his small town, Mankgele decided to become a physician. He was fascinated with the complexities of human blood and spurred on by the fact that multiple myeloma is common in his country.

Mankgele said fellows in the program are the first point of contact for consultations and treatment-related questions in the hematology clinic. They also coordinate the stem cell transplant program, which includes many multiple myeloma patients.

Dealing with patients who are very sick can be overwhelming, he said.

Dr. Mahlatse Mankgele said fellows get many opportunities, including coordinating the stem cell transplant program and being involved with teaching medical students.

“It all comes down to doing what you possibly can to manage and/or save the patient. And that is very rewarding.”
Dr. Mahlatse Mankgele, program fellow

Mankgele said the fellowship has been an amazing learning experience. He knows whatever he does after the program ends will involve giving back to a community away from big cities, where he can help create a much-needed place for hematology and oncology patients to seek medical help.

Getting more time with loved ones

Dr. Moses Chatambudza grew up in Zimbabwe knowing he wanted to be a doctor. He originally wanted to become a cardiac surgeon but realized that wasn’t his passion.

After finishing his fellowship training, he was supposed to go to an HIV clinic. However, in what can perhaps be seen as divine intervention, Chatambudza was instead sent to a clinical hematology unit that had just opened. The two years he spent there changed his career path and, ultimately, the lives of future patients diagnosed with blood disorders like multiple myeloma. 

Dr. Moses Chatambudza said a grant from the BMS Foundation is helping a group he established diagnose more people with multiple myeloma.

He is one of four hematologists serving about 15 million people in his home country when he returned in 2021. Semondile said two of the four are post-retirement age and could retire at any time.

Chatambudza joined the hematology unit at Parirenyatwa Hospital, the largest teaching hospital in Zimbabwe. He said he established a consortium that received a two-year grant from the Foundation to develop a comprehensive, sustainable and data-driven multiple myeloma program in three provinces of Zimbabwe.

He said many people with the disease were previously going undiagnosed, but the grant enables his program to do a better job of diagnosing patients.

In turn, that provides the opportunity to talk about stem cell transplants, which can give patients more time with their family and friends. And more time is priceless.

‘The vessel that brings about change’      

Semondile finds it difficult to put into words what the Foundation’s commitment to multiple myeloma patients means to her. “I count myself very lucky to be in this position,” she said. “I just want to be the vessel that brings about change.”

She cherishes being able to sit across the table from people who run the programs and hear about the impact they’re making. It’s one thing to read their reports, but sharing experiences in person is something altogether different.

Semondile said she makes sure not to wear makeup on the days that patients share their stories, because she often finds herself in tears. “If you make one little helpful change for a person, they’re just really over the moon,” she said.

She believes Phangisile Mtshali, who created the program, would be proud of the work being done. Mtshali passed away in January.

“It’s amazing how her spirit lies in each and every project,” she said.

In addition to the Multiple Myeloma ABCDES Programme, the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation has awarded several grants to initiatives focused on multiple myeloma in Africa, including:

  • BLOOD SA Foundation to develop, maintain and promote best practices in hematology patient care in sub-Saharan Africa, including implementing, developing and supporting national registries for multiple myeloma and stem cell transplants (January 2022-December 2023).
  • The Cancer Association of South Africa to support multiple myeloma patients and their loved ones in Kwa-Zulu-Natal and Cape Town by providing accommodations, transportation, meals and care to patients at two facilities and assisting patients and their loved ones through the association’s support programs.
  • National Health Laboratory Services at King Edward VIII Hospital to facilitate early diagnosis and treatment of multiple myeloma patients (within four to eight weeks from presentation to treatment), improve inpatient and holistic care for patients and collect data to compile a patient registry.

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