Not only is Dr Sindi a medical doctor, but she is also a public figure through social media, activism and broadcasting. In 2019, in addition to her medical practice, she joined the Home of the Afropolitan with a new night-time talk show ‘Sidebar with Sindi’ on KayaFM, where she discusses everything from general health, sexuality and mental health to living with HIV, and everything in-between. The medical matters closest to her heart are HIV, in particular the ‘Prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV’ programme. “Pregnant women should be tested for HIV in every pregnancy and, if positive, must be put on antiretroviral treatment to make sure baby is born HIV-free,” she says.
“I’m also passionate about mental health matters. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in April 2013 and was admitted to hospital for three weeks. The admission saved my life and made me realise the importance of speaking up about mental health.”
What were your interests growing up, and did you always want to become a doctor?
I’ve wanted to be a medical doctor for as long as I can remember. Other things that sparked my interest were being a TV newsreader or a flight attendant, but I always had my eyes set on medicine. I have memories of accompanying my granny to the clinic for her check-ups. My family knew my dream and they egged me on, too. My late Mom knew the importance and value of a good education and so she made sure that I attended the best primary and high school possible. This set me on course to realise my dream!
How do you start and end each day?
Twitter! I have an interesting sleeping pattern so when I am awake most people are asleep. Twitter entertains me at all hours.
What is the best part of the work you do?
The main aim of my work is to make sure that people understand what HIV is and how it works. I am able to explain HIV in a way that makes sense. The look on a patient's face when they truly understand makes me smile. It is priceless.
What is the hardest part of your day at work, and the toughest things to deal with?
There are some questions that patients ask me for which there are no answers. It is hard for me when a patient asks why there is no cure for HIV. I always try and shift the focus to the things that the patient must be grateful for and can control, without diminishing their concerns or worries.
The field is still dominated by men – do you think this is changing?
Slowly but surely! It is so encouraging to see the number of young women entering the medical field. This warms my heart!
You must love people with all your heart to become a medical doctor.
What advice do you have for other women entering the field?
You must love people with all your heart to become a medical doctor. The training is long and there may be some harrowing moments, so be sure you're doing it for the right reasons. Other than that, enjoy every moment. Don't put any of your other dreams on hold for medicine. You can be a doctor and whatever else you want! Dream big and go for it!
Who is Dr Sindi van Zyl without the “doctor” title?
I am a socialite! I really enjoy eating out and I especially enjoy mall trawling. Whenever a new mall opens in Gauteng, I make the time to go and check it out. I have been doing this for years and I still enjoy it.
What are 3 points of personal advice, doc?
1. Self-care is essential. You must set time aside to spend on yourself.
2. Have a bucket list of things that you would like to achieve, no matter how crazy those things may be. Write it down, dream about it, go for it! Having things to look forward to will keep you going.
3. Be kind. It costs nothing to be kind.
Dr Sindi, does an apple a day really keep the doctor away?
We need to know, does an apple a day really keep the doctor away? ;)
It actually does! :D
We are experiencing the world’s COVID-19 crisis. What are the most common questions you are being asked, concerns that you are dealing with, and your advice to your patients?
The question I am being asked the most is about the safety of people that are living with HIV/AIDS. For now – in the absence of information that tells otherwise – a person who is living with HIV and who is on antiretroviral treatment is taking it properly, and has an undetectable viral load, is at no higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease. The viral load is the number of HIV copies in the body. Who am I worried about? People that have undiagnosed HIV, people who are not taking their treatment properly and who have detectable viral loads.
The next concern I have is around disclosure of chronic illness in the workplace in the context of COVID-19. I understand that employers want to protect employees and need to know who must work from home and so on. However, ethics still need to be adhered to. Patient-doctor confidentiality means that I do NOT have to declare what chronic illness an employee has unless the employee has given me consent to do so. If you get a letter from a doctor stating that an employee has a chronic illness, you have to accept the letter as it is.
"She has purposefully been a rock to lean on and a well of wisdom for those needing medical and general guidance from an empathetic and above all, honest ear. As a friend, despite her busy life, she has been a consistent source of warmth and compassion - A good laugh comes standard! I am blessed to have a friend and sister in her."
- Aileen, a friend who knows her well!