Brantwood resident Helishia Dirks (40) received the good news in December that she was awarded the prestigious Margaret McNamara Education Grant (MMEG award) to finish her current studies.
MMEG is an international non-profit organisation that awards grants to women from developing countries studying to change the lives of the less fortunate.
Dirks was chosen as one of 10 annual grantees from the African continent for 2023.
She wants to raise awareness about the awards for any women (or anyone that identifies as a woman) who might want to apply for this grant.
Dirks has been working as a clinical technologist in the neurophysiology department at Red Cross Memorial Children’s Hospital since 2018.
She is currently studying towards her master’s degree in health sciences at Durban University of Technology.
Her responsibilities include performing various neurodiagnostic tests to assist the neurologist with a patient diagnosis.
Neurophysiologists deal with conditions such as epilepsy, sleep problems, cerebral palsy, and various neuromuscular diseases. They perform various tests to evaluate the function of the brain and nervous system.
Dirks grew up in Worcester where both her parents worked at the local hospital.
“Mum as a nurse and my dad as store manager.
“I basically grew up at the hospital.”
In high school she volunteered during the school holidays in the children’s ward where her mother worked.
“I think this is where my love of hospitals started. I always knew I was going to work in the medical field, specifically something with the brain.”
Dirks went on to study clinical technology at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein. A tragic loss of a childhood friend during her second year reinforced the idea that she was on the right path to follow a career in neurophysiology.
Dirks says she was at home in Worcester during the June holidays when she heard that her friend, who was in matric, had fallen into the pool and died. “She had epilepsy.”
After graduation Dirks worked for neurologists in private practice for 14 years. She also studied part-time for a degree in psychology through the University of South Africa.
“My brain needed some stimulation and in private practice there was not much room for professional growth,’’ she says.
Her professional dream became a reality when she got the job at Red Cross in 2018.
“From the moment I walked into the neurology department, I felt this is it, I am home. I do my best to welcome every mother and child into my space and treat them with the respect they deserve.
“I live to serve the patients here at Red Cross. Every day I hope and pray that I am making a difference, no matter how small, in one of the children’s lives,” says Dirks.
The head of department at Red Cross is her supervisor for her master studies.
“I also have a supervisor in Durban that handles the administration. Everything gets done at Red Cross and we send the information on.”
Research for earlier diagnosis
For her thesis she is working towards finding an earlier biological marker to diagnose cerebral palsy. “At present, by the time it is diagnosed, it is basically too late to intervene.”
Dirks says a biomarker can help as it is unfortunately not always possible to have MRI scans done. Red Cross has state-of-the-art equipment but high patient numbers, and many other facilities (in SA and Africa) simply don’t have access to the resources.
“At Red Cross we do paediatric electroencephalograms (EEGs or brain wave tests). We mainly test for epilepsy, but also other brain disorders.
We do wake and sleep EEG, because sleep EEG gives us so much information.”
Her research is looking at sleep spindles, which she says are little waves found in the brain during sleep that helps the brain to store gathered information.
Through doing many EEGs Dirks noticed that the sleep spindles of children who had a brain insult at birth were different from the norm.
“I thought I can investigate this further.” She was able to find some information but says the numbers (of children involved) were so small that it was not conclusive.
As they see so many children at Red Cross every day, she says it is ideal for doing this research.
Dirks is hoping to finish her studies next year. There are some follow-up cognitive tests that can only be done on the children after some time.
“These children won’t benefit from what I’m doing now,” she says. Should her research prove the hypothesis then hopefully it can be implemented to assist with earlier diagnosis, earlier intervention and thus a better outcome for those affected.
Dirks says working with children is her calling and working at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s hospital her passion.
The Margaret McNamara Educational Grants (previously Memorial Fund) is named after the wife of Robert McNamara, World Bank president in the 1970s.
Margaret used her influence to help ensure women and children were not overlooked in World Bank projects. The fund was started after her death in 1981.
According to the MMEG website women’s education is at the core of their programmes. Investing in education of girls and women is seen as an effective way to reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth.
Grants are awarded to women from developing countries who are at least 25 years old and enrolled at universities in the USA, Canada, South Africa, Latin America and the
- Visit www.mmeg.org for more information.