Project Flamingo, like many good things in life, started around a good bottle of wine and a desperate email that landed in the right inbox. When faced with the heartbreaking, stretched out and often chaotic journey of a breast cancer patient in the public health sector, I decided that something needed to be done. Not only were these women subjected to agonisingly long waiting times for surgery, they were also mostly left isolated in their struggle with a daunting diagnosis. And as good stories go, a rich mixture of passionate people serendipitously collided, when a group of paddling breast cancer survivors reached out to this young doctor who desperately wanted to change the journey of breast cancer patients in Cape Town’s public health sector.
The simple yet profoundly effective idea of “Catch-up Surgeries” and “Pamper packs” was born. When the AmaBele Belles Dragonboat Racing Team pledged the first donation to the project on a radio interview, it was fate. Joining forces, the amaBele Belles’ Project Flamingo has subsequently grown so fast that literally hundreds of women have been touched by the project since its launch in 2010.
We started small but always dreamed big – from visiting patients with our pamper packs to reminding them of their feminine spirit that no surgery can take away, to raising funds for our “Catch–up Surgeries” at Groote Schuur Hospital – reducing the waiting time for a lifesaving mastectomy from three months to a mere two weeks and now also changing the lives of those diagnosed with colorectal cancer with our “catch-ups”. This is the short story of how the Flamingo spreading Feathers of Hope took flight.
The Wine Club That Gave PROJECT FLAMINGO Wings
It really is thanks to the support and endless energy of seven phenomenal women (who we are lucky to call ‘friends’) that Project Flamingo took flight in 2010!
As far as wine clubs goes, ours had all the necessary ingredients for a fabulous time: great food, great wine and seven very opinionated professional women. We also had, as it turned out, a sizable measure of heart! Following a particularly heartbreaking week, struggling to get my patients the appropriate treatment at the right time in the public health care sector, I spilled my proverbial guts over a glass of spectacular Chardonnay. I barely voiced the idea of pamper packs and catch-up surgeries and these girls jumped on their phones, fingers flying over their hurriedly opened laptops to make things happen: from organising flamboyant fundraising cocktail parties to shamelessly recruiting their friends and families to the cause, with heartfelt pledges for contributions. My passion was contagious, obviously! It was one of them actually who serendipitously sent my email pledge to the amaBele Belles – an impulse email that has had an enormous ripple effect. I can never thank them enough…
Project Flamingo stands for many things – but the one thing that has become our foundation is the rediscovery of community: our connectedness. Profound things happen we loosen our boundaries and allow ourselves to think: perhaps I can make a difference, perhaps there is a way in which I can contribute. In the words of Rumi: “Give up the drop and become the ocean.”
Whenever people tell me that they ‘wish they knew how to help’ my answer is this: when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer at least a few of the following things happen:
- A woman is faced with a devastating diagnosis
- A husband/ partner is faced with a new frightening and confusing reality
- Food still needs to be cooked
- Children still need to get to school
- Patients still have to work, fit in surgery and prolonged treatment and keep their personal lives together
Now look at those five very simple statements and tell me you honestly cannot come up with a single way in which you could help?
On a lighter note, for those who wonder where the name Project Flamingo comes from, here is a confession: it just really sounded like the name of an uber-cool cocktail during one of our wine club get-togethers!
THE BIRTH OF THE PAMPER PACK!
It was while reading this account of a certain Colonel Gonin’s stay at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War Two that the idea of pamper packs was born. The story touched me deeply and I was reminded that sometimes it is the small things we do that make a big difference. That we should never do nothing because a problem seems overwhelmingly big and our ability to contribute seems overwhelmingly small.
“It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nighty but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the postmortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”
So sometimes the difference between heaven and hell may be a bit of lipstick. Sometimes the difference between losing and finding your feminine soul may be a bottle of nail polish or hand cream. Sometimes it is not that difficult at all to change someone’s life.
So this is what we do: Pamper packs for all newly diagnosed breast cancer patients at the Groote Schuur Hospital Combined Breast Clinic. Every Wednesday a panel of expert clinicians, including surgeons, oncologists, pathologists and radiologists meet with approximately 20 newly diagnosed patients to discuss their diagnosis and treatment plan. This is a life-changing and traumatic afternoon for these women – and our pamper packs is an attempt to keep their feminine spirit alive. These pamper packs contain some bathroom essentials, lip ice, nail polish and a snack as well as educational material on breast cancer that they can bring along to hospital when they come back for their surgeries. The idea of the Pamper pack has truly taken off – and has become a token of hope, so much so that we hope to soon be able to distribute these packs to all women diagnosed with any form of cancer.
What on earth is a ‘catch-up’ list?
Timely surgery for newly diagnosed breast cancer patients is of the utmost importance. Surgery is often, although not always, the first step in a long process of treatment, before chemotherapy and radiotherapy. A delay is surgery therefore dominoes into a delay of the entire treatment process. Tremendous strain on theatre and staff resources have led to a waiting time of up to 10 weeks for surgery in 2010. (Those who think this is an uniquely African problem, read up on the tremendous waiting times in the UK’s NHS). Blaming, shaming and protesting does not solve the problem. But raising funds and paying for additional theatre lists does! Enter Project Flamingo’s “catch-up” lists where we pay for additional theatre time and nursing staff and volunteer anaesthetists and surgeons who get the surgery done. Although our main focus has always been breast cancer surgery, we now sponsor similar lists for colorectal cancer surgery. The waiting time for surgery is down from 10 weeks to 2-3 weeks and we could not be happier.
So here is the gist: we take note of the lessons the big C has taught us. We embrace the idea that we have the responsibility and capacity to make a difference. Importantly, we know that you, whoever you are, CAN TOO.