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‘Can’t wait to get to know my students,’ says UCT's new dean of the faculty of health sciences

Professor Lionel Green-Thompson the new dean arrived at UCT as it was evacuated due to lockdown. ANA Pictures.

Professor Lionel Green-Thompson the new dean arrived at UCT as it was evacuated due to lockdown. ANA Pictures.

Published May 16, 2020


Cape Town - THE day he arrived in the dean’s office, all of his students were evacuated from campus due to the lockdown.

This is the challenge facing UCT’s new dean of the faculty of health sciences: leading a cohort of health-care students he’s never met, through a crisis the world has never faced before.

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But Professor Lionel Green-Thompson has embraced these challenges in his first two months at the helm of the faculty. “The thing that I’m a little bit sad about is that I don’t know the students,” he said. “It’s been a challenge to try relate to students even though they’re not here. A large part of my work has been taking care of students, building relationships with them, challenging them. Engaging with their fears and anxieties is crucial, because they’re real. That’s the part I miss - just talking to people.”

But even though learning for most students is taking place online for now, he doesn’t believe their education will be compromised. “I think we may be able to deliver sharper students because of the changed nature of acquiring that knowledge.”

Green-Thompson studied medicine at Wits, and went on to complete an MMed in anaesthesia as well as a two-year Wits Carnegie clinical PhD fellowship. He held multiple roles in the Wits faculty of health sciences, and prior to his UCT post was dean of Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria North.

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But the roots of his passion for medicine and health professional education lie in his childhood, in the town of Vryheid in northern KwaZulu Natal. “My father was a rural GP, and my mother was his nurse. The nature of their lives has determined my journey in so many ways, because their lives were always in the service of other people,” he said. “I don’t recall ever not wanting to do medicine.”

Even as a medical student, Green-Thompson knew that he wanted to be a teacher of future doctors. He has a clear idea of how he hopes his leadership as dean at UCT will shape the students in his care.

“Our doctors are in demand across the world for a variety of reasons, not least of which is because the learning of our students is inscribed on the bodies of the vulnerable,” he said.

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“Our students learn because the poor and infirm come to the public health service. If I’m to make a difference at all, it’s for the students to continually respect that vulnerability. I’d like to see a curriculum that gives back to our students a sense of agency - that they are people first, and that they’re very mindful that even though they’re a little part (of the health system), the little they do can go a long way.”

In meantime, he is focusing on getting through the Covid-19 crisis until he can meet the students he’s leading in person, and experience his new Cape Town home to the fullest post-lockdown. “I just wish I could go to the sea! I feel like I’m still in Joburg!”

Weekend Argus

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