|Dr Carol-Ann Benn is hard to pin down. The breast disease expert is rather busy healing women, running a foundation and a home, teaching and saving stray animals, among other things.|
SHE describes her home as a Boswell & Wilkie Circus. That probably epitomises her enthusiasm and energy as a dedicated mother and one of the country's top breast cancer experts and surgeons.
Dr Carol-Ann Benn's home, besides being a place to live for herself, her husband and three children, also doubles as home to a pig, guinea pigs, rabbits, three large malamutes and 13 cats. Not surprisingly, there is "perpetual motion" on her property in Bryanston.
"People are always coming over for either food, company, a bed or to drop off a stray. People have said that I can charge an entrance fee to my house," she says.
Unlike most doctors, Benn gives her patients her cellphone number, "so that they can call me if they are having a wobbly". She describes herself as "incredibly hyperactive", and often works until midnight.
"Fortunately I have been able to channel some serious hyperactivity into successful multi-tasking and love having a day that is non-stop busy." Essential for this is good family support, which she gets from her husband, who is also a doctor.
A tall, slim, attractive blonde, Benn is happy for patients to use her first name, and welcomes them to her rooms in her easy, relaxed manner. But getting her to sit still for an interview is like taming wild mares. A planned hour interview turns into a 20-minute interview, snatched between phone calls, the arrival of a magnificent bunch of thank you roses, and then a dash for the dentist.
Having worked as a surgeon at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital for six years, in 1998 Benn wondered which direction her "surgical path" should take. She was asked, rhetorically, whether she would take over the breast clinic at the Johannesburg Hospital.
At that, she turned to Dr Myron Lange, now retired but a breast cancer specialist for 30 years, for help. "The enthusiasm, instruction and gentlemanly way that he inspired and taught me about breast disease furthered my love for the subject," she says.
In turn, Lange has heaps of praise for what Benn has done, describing her as a "top expert and surgeon". She has subsequently established a breast cancer clinic at three other hospitals: Baragwanath, Helen Joseph and Milpark.
In 2002 she established the Breast Health Foundation, a national body based in Johannesburg that aims to educate patients and the medical fraternity through forums and outreach programmes.
Several pilot projects are running, says Lauren Pretorius, the vice-chairperson of the foundation, a Section 21 company sponsored by medical corporates. The research will filter down to doctors throughout the country.
A major challenge of the foundation is to work out a way of helping rural women who have been referred to city hospitals, to reach those hospitals when their resources are very limited.
A support group called Bosom Buddies is a spin-off from the foundation. It deals with pre- and post-admission in breast cancer cases, filling in the gap between when a woman has been diagnosed and before her admission for breast surgery.
Lange describes Benn as an extremely hardworking doctor who has a built-in loyalty to patients and Wits University, where she teaches. "She has extremely loyal staff, and inspires students." She teaches fourth, fifth and sixth year students.
He admires what she has done as the driving force behind establishing the clinics and the foundation, but also her academic work, presenting papers and teaching young doctors. Benn has also co-authored a book called Know your Breast.
She has organised foreign and private funding to establish the Netcare Breast Care Centre of Excellence at the Milpark Hospital. The centre co-ordinates national efforts for the specialised management of breast conditions to all women, irrespective of their medical aid status. It also offers a national share-call number for women (and men) with breast problems.
Benn has had numerous job offers from overseas, but has resisted them. "This is not about the money," she says, "I love this country and wouldn't think of moving."
Perhaps this goes back to her childhood when, as a child of four or five, she remembers telling her dad that she wanted to study medicine so that "I can help people and make a difference".
She says there was no-one in her family in medicine, and she was "not particularly good" at maths and science. Her family felt she should go into journalism, being better at languages.
But they obviously underestimated her drive. "What I had in my favour was single-minded determination and the belief that if I wanted to do this I would get there eventually."
At 38 that passion is even more evident. Benn takes pride in the clinics she heads, saying that delegation is important. She is particularly pleased with the way they are run - if a woman comes on the wrong day, she will still be seen, and be referred in the right direction.
Lange also admires the way she has managed to balance her own, small private practice with working for the Gauteng province and being an academic.
Benn praises the province for its support. A centralised provincial breast clinic is to open later in the year at Helen Joseph Hospital.
She will often see a patient in her private practice, but then because of the patient's financial constraints, refer them for surgery to a public hospital. She never turns anyone away and does not charge people who cannot afford to pay.
As career highlights she rates the ability of her patients to set up support groups for other patients, establishing the Breast Health Foundation, and having a world-class onco-reconstructive centre, both in private practice and in provincial hospitals, which offers counselling, telephonic advice and holistic health.
She is a finalist in the 2005 Checkers/SABC2 Woman of the Year competition, one of 24 finalists in seven categories. The winner of this prestigious competition will be selected on 28 July.
"This was a great surprise and I feel very honoured," Benn says. "It is awesome, although I feel that there are township women who are doing great things."
When told there was a prize of R30 000, Benn's response was, "Great, this is an opportunity to reach more women."
Lange says he retired knowing that the clinic was in "very, very capable" hands.
She says, "I don't ever switch off from my work."