Eikehof care home – a refuge for many cancer patients on treatment far from home
As one of eight Cancer Association of South Africa homes offering accommodation to cancer patients while on treatment around South Africa, Eikehof in Athlone is a godsend for many. Bienne Huisman visited the facility and spoke to staff and some patients.
Even on a grey winter’s day the Eikehof care home in a quiet Athlone cul-de-sac in Cape Town is sun-washed and bright. In the kitchen, general assistants Tania Mazamebela and Nelisa Gxabagxaba are unpacking a Woolworths donation. There are apples and pears, bunches of roses, prepackaged beetroot salad, chicken BBQ pancakes and scores of bottles of milk. One of eight Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) homes offering accommodation to cancer patients around South Africa, Eikehof receives on-day-expiry food from a local Woolworths store twice a week. This is arranged through FoodForward SA, a food bank that redirects surplus food to nonprofit organisations.
On the stove, dinner cooked by Mazamebela is ready – chicken pasta. The home’s coordinator, social worker Angelina Lingani-Ngubu, is taking Spotlight on a tour of the premises. “The food is really good here,” she says. “I mean, recently we had this prostate cancer patient from the Northern Cape. He picked up so much weight while staying here. He didn’t even want to leave! He was a wonderful man. He spoke Khoisan. He would speak to his family over the phone in that language.”
With 21 beds, Eikehof accommodates cancer patients from around South Africa, providing a homely space while they receive treatment in Cape Town. Lingani-Ngubu says they are seeing more and more South Africans travelling from as far afield as Lesotho to seek medical care in Cape Town. Staying at Eikehof costs R106 a night, which includes three meals, but she says no patient would be shown away for a lack of funds. A dedicated Cansa shuttle provides free daily transport to oncology units at Groote Schuur Hospital, the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, Netcare N1 City Hospital, Mediclinic Panorama, and Mediclinic Louis Leipoldt, where patients have chemotherapy, radiation or transplant surgery.
In the double-storey house, upstairs, 25-year-old Liteboho Sello is reclined on a bed, on a polka-dot duvet. On the bedside table is his current read, Excellence: How to Pursue an Excellent Spirit by Andrew Wommack, and a charging laptop.
Sello is from the Leribe district in northern Lesotho. On his first day as a graphic design student at Limkokwing University in Maseru in 2017, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. The next year, he started chemotherapy with Dr Jacques Malherbe in Bloemfontein and had surgery to replace much of the bone in his right leg with metal. On his bed, Sello lifts his tracksuit pants to reveal a ragged scar.
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Sello’s cancer went into remission until 2022 when he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Malherbe referred Sello to Groote Schuur, where his treatment and accommodation at Eikehof are covered through research grants procured by Professor Vernon Louw, head of the Division of Clinical Haematology at the University of Cape Town.
“There are no cancer hospitals in Lesotho,” says Sello. “So cancer patients go to Bloemfontein for chemo and other stuff, which is two hours away. It was my doctor in Bloemfontein, Dr Jacques Malherbe, who organised for us to get a bus to come here to Cape Town.”
Sello travelled to Groote Schuur from Bloemfontein on an overnight bus, arriving on 27 January along with his uncle and his 12-year-old sister who would be his stem cell donor.
“With this type of cancer, they said the possible donors should be your siblings, as they have the best chance to be a 100% match,” says Sello. “There are three of us. I’m the oldest and there’s my brother who will be 23 this year. But he had a problem doing it because he is a Jehovah’s Witness. So there was my sister who is 12 years old. My parents asked her. We talked to her. She knew I’d been sick for a long time [and] they explained how this needs to be done for me. And she said, no it’s fine, she can do it. At first she was scared and we tried to calm her, but it wasn’t easy because we didn’t know what to expect. When we came here, she was fine. After everything, she was like, this is actually nothing. There was no pain.”
Cancer and cancer treatment can damage haematopoietic stem cells, which can be replenished through a stem cell transplant. At Groote Schuur stem cells were collected from Sello’s sister’s bloodstream. In preparation, he had intense chemotherapy, after which her stem cells were infused into his bloodstream through a catheter. After a stem cell transplant patients are closely monitored because there are serious risks, including weakened immune systems, making them vulnerable to bacterial, fungal and viral infections.
Sello spent most of February in hospital as his body adjusted and fought to live. He developed a fever and was kept a week longer. Discharged on 10 March, he arrived at Eikehof, exhausted and darkened from chemo. But since then his skin tone has been recovering. He has picked up 10kg (he now weighs 58kg) and on his chin there are traces of resumed beard growth.
Sitting on a bed next to Sello, Lingani-Ngubu says: “Patients who have blood [stem cell] transplants are secluded in hospital for about 21 days because they basically have no immune system. When Liteboho arrived, he was just sleeping, eating in bed. He is recovering well, though.”
Asked about the procedure, Sello shrugs. “There’s nothing much I can say about it. I’ve been to hospital so much. It’s just that you face some really difficult, some really hectic side-effects.”
Sello will stay at Eikehof for another six months to a year, while doctors monitor his blood. Meanwhile, his uncle and sister have returned to Leribe. Asked about his accommodation in Cape Town, Sello laughs: “Oh, it’s very nice. I really like this place. I don’t miss home that much.”
When told that he is brave, he smiles: “I have to be.”
‘I’m scared Angie’
In her office downstairs, Lingani-Ngubu recounts her heart breaking soon after she joined Eikehof in November 2021, when a young leukaemia patient died from complications following a stem cell transplant.
“I mean, my first leukaemia patient, *Xholo. He had just turned 16. He was from Mossel Bay and was planning the following year, which was 2022, to finish his matric, because he had skipped a year as he had been sick. His dad was the donor, but unfortunately his dad was only a 50% match, which doesn’t really matter. There have been many patients after him who had 50% match donors, who pulled through.
She says she has learnt that cancer does not discriminate. Their patients are of all demographics, from both the private and public sectors.
“Xholo was very scared. He lost a lot of weight. I would see him in the kitchen. He loved coffee, so he would be standing there drinking his coffee, his face full of worry. And when I spoke to him he would tell me, ‘I’m scared Angie’. He called me Angie. ‘I am scared, I’m worried,’ he would say and I would try to boost his confidence in terms of look at so-and-so; she’s pulled through, and he’s pulled through. And I just told him that, listen, everything is up to God. All you have to do is be strong and pray about it. And ja, within a couple of days, I got that call. The social worker at the hospital want[ed] a contact of Xholo’s mother as unfortunately he had passed away. There were just too many things that didn’t work, you know. He had infections as well.”
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Lingani-Ngubu remembers Xholo receiving a donated phone shortly before his procedure. “He went with the phone to hospital and he was sending me messages. He wasn’t able to breathe properly. He was sending me VNs [voicenotes] to say he was now on a nappy, within less than three days. I mean he walked out of here [Eikehof]. And so Xholo passed away, just like that. He had left all his belongings here at Eikehof with the hope that after the 21 days of isolation, he’s gonna come back and recuperate and then be back to normal.”
Lingani-Ngubu says that since she arrived Xholo has been the only patient who died while accommodated at Eikehof. This experience touched her deeply and she required debriefing. Before joining Cansa, Lingani-Ngubu, who lives in Khayelitsha, worked at a string of nonprofits including Childline and the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation. She says she has learnt that cancer does not discriminate. Their patients are of all demographics, from both the private and public sectors. What they try to achieve at Eikehof, she says, is a family atmosphere where patients can support each other; for example, in the shared dining room people will encourage someone who has lost all appetite due to treatment to take a bite to eat.
“For example, *Cathy from Oudtshoorn, she was here. She was undergoing chemotherapy. She wasn’t feeling well at all. We didn’t even know, but she said afterwards, ‘Angie, I actually wanted to give up, but it’s your words, including the night carers’ words, that lifted me up’.”
Thanks to a donation, Eikehof will have Netflix soon. In the lounge, shelves are stacked with donated books and magazines. It is furnished with upright single chairs, since the home’s old sofas were worn and had to be thrown out. This beautiful home-away-from-home for cancer patients is always looking for donations. (Spotlight observes that comfortable sofas would certainly be a welcome addition.)
* Identities withheld
This article was published by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.