Dr Coetzee: Discoverer of the First Omicron Case


62-year-old Dr Angelique Coetzee breaking retirement norms

“People often ask me when I am going to retire. For me in this age group, I will die on the job. I probably will be sitting on my chair and listening to a patient and be gone. [laughs] You are not able to retire from your job easier, it becomes you.”

Dr. Coetzee

Dr. Coetzee is a general practitioner in Pretoria, South Africa. She is energetic and perceptive, and her experience in medicine is long-standing. In addition, after 1992, she was the female chairperson of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), a non-profit organisation for medical practitioners.

She says medicine is and will always be Dr. Coetzee’s first and last choice. Her passion for her profession led her to the discovery of Omicron.

“Medicine was always in my head. After 33 years, you don’t know if your job is your passion or not. It becomes who you are, it defines you.”

Dr. Coetzee

Timeline of a Doctor

Every medical student’s aim is to specialize in a particular field and to excel in their profession through dedication and hard work. However, it does hinder their personal life, which makes achieving their goals tougher.

“In early years when you are young, you decide to specialise. Before you decide what to specialise in, you are pregnant and you start a family. Now, there is no time. Children are small and you survive to and fro patients and family. Then there is school and you are not always there when it is sports day at school. Then you get older and you think what am I doing here? You begin to open new horizons for yourself. That is what I have done. Before you know you are old, it is who you are. You don’t get time to think of anything else.”

Dr. Coetzee

Dealing with Crisis in Medicine

Every doctor goes through a crisis at some point in their career. However, each one of them deals with stress and crisis differently. Although it sounds complicated, Dr. Coetzee believes in being humble with the patients even when the situation is getting on your nerves. She knows how to keep her cool even in unnerving situations.

“When you are younger you sit and you swallow and swallow and smile and you want to kill the patient. But you smile. And when you get out you call your secretary and tell them that you are going to throw the desk at someone who says all nonsense to me. And then you take deep breaths followed by “Hello, what can I do for you today?” This is what you do in crises! Sometimes you swear. There are such nice words that you use. You strike those words and then you feel better. [laughs]”

Dr. Coetzee

Discovery of the Omicron Variant

“We are old school. We still touch patients. I always tell young doctors; that they touch iPads and mobile phones but if they were real human beings they don’t touch the patient for examination. Since I am old school, I still use all senses while dealing with patients. I see all my patients on a daily basis. A very interesting thing developed in the course of all these years; 6th sense. History is very important.

Dr. Coetzee

She spoke about her experience regarding the discovery, where a young man approached her for a clinical examination. However, it didn’t fit the picture, so she decided to run some tests on him and he was positive for covid. Moreover, no active cases were seen by her during the last eight weeks before she encountered this patient.

The patient was lying on bed and I put my hands on my head in exasperation indicating the possibility of another wave to my nurse. We had already suspected another wave of COVID-19 but in late December. The case surfaced a month earlier. His wife and son both tested positive but the child didn’t have symptoms. On the same day, I tested some more people positive. By 1 o’clock I tested many people positive and all of them didn’t fit the clinical picture for delta strain.

Dr. Coetzee

Unusual Case Pattern

She contacted the advisory committee for vaccines since the case had an unusual pattern.

As I am a member of the Advisory Committee for Vaccines, I contacted them and informed them about the unusual pattern of clinical presentation among patients. At the same time, one of our lab technicians discovered on PCR the absence of a gene on spike protein. The clinical picture and the lab tests indicated the scientists to initiate workup. 4-5 days later, the scientists informed us about the new variant; omicron.”

Dr. Coetzee

No Work No Pay

She says that working in both the private and government sectors is extremely hectic.

From a South African perspective, you either work in the private sector or you work for the government. It is very frustrating to work for the government because of the infrastructure. If you are from the private sector, you work for yourself. This means no work, no pay. At some stage, you become your practice. If you want to go on leave for two weeks, you will not work and therefore won’t earn. Remember, you still have to pay for the holiday. This becomes really difficult. That is why older doctors say we are our practice.

Dr. Coetzee

Passive Income

Dr. Coetzee says that money is fuel. From daily groceries to monthly bills to yearly vacations, you need money for everything. Doctors don’t get anything for free, despite the respect and professional nobility.

Do whatever you are trying to do but don’t put everything in the same direction. Get something else that gives you passive income. So that at the end of the day, when you take that much-needed break or holiday you don’t have financial issues. People will tell you money is not everything. It is true. But you can’t go shopping and tell me I am a doctor and I see patients for free. Please give me bread for free as I don’t have enough money to pay you. You can’t do that. So diversify.

Dr. Coetzee

Empowerment of Doctors

“Happy doctor, happy patient”

Dr. Coetzee

People are alien to the concept that a doctor’s well-being is also of immense importance. They also long for extra benefits and allowances, just like any other profession.

My goal as Chairperson of the South African Medical Association is to stay until we achieve our independent medical and dental council. Currently, we work under the healthcare professionals’ council in South Africa and it is really not looking into the interests of doctors. So we are still struggling. Also, I want to ensure the empowerment of doctors and ensure they are happy and satisfied in their work. If you have a happy doctor, you will have a happy patient. 

Dr. Coetzee

Women in the Professional World

She understands what the working circumstances for most women are. Moreover, she is aware that they are very different from men. According to her, a woman juggles between her work life and homemaking. She encourages women about women’s empowerment and emphasizes that men help them out at home.

“I want to tell all young doctors that if you can’t attend that cricket match because work came up don’t beat yourself up. Be there for your child emotionally. One day they will be there for you. They will remember you didn’t pitch up for the match but they will know you were there emotionally. Always remember, it is not easy.

Dr. Coetzee

She further emphasized that being a professional female is tough.

Being a female in the world of professionals is not easy. I always say being a female, you look after the children, you make sure children are going to school, homework is done and groceries are bought and washing is done. They seem like small little things. It becomes a full-time job if you are a man and your wife is sick. You have to do all this. Sometimes I would tell my male colleagues to switch roles with their spouse for 2-3 weeks to see what is in the female world. We are excellent multitaskers. I have not seen a man who is a multitasker! [Laughs] I am sorry, I am not a sexist. I tell young females to train their husbands to help them. Please allow them to help. As females, we sometimes want to do everything ourselves.”

Dr. Coetzee

Dr. Coetzee: Mother and Healthcare Worker

Dr. Angelique Coetzee has been practising as a physician for thirty-three years and continues to work even after sixty. She is a successful mother and healthcare worker.


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