Over 40 Years in Healthcare from Paediatrics to Infectious Diseases, And Still Loving It!

Women’s Month has encouraged us to explore some of the incredible women in healthcare in South Africa

Wednesday, August 26 2020

Over 40 Years in Healthcare from Paediatrics to Infectious Diseases, And Still Loving It!
Women’s Month has encouraged us to explore some of the incredible women in healthcare in South Africa. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, there were few people more qualified to deal with the outbreak than Professor Lucille Blumberg, Deputy Director at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

With an impressive career that spans more than 40 years in various fields of medicine and 18 years of experience in Infectious Diseases, she’s an inspiration in how to thrive as a woman in a male-dominated profession.
“It’s an exciting time to be in the field that I work in. I started out as a conventional doctor wanting to diagnose and treat and save the world.”

Although Prof. Blumberg loves what she does, she warns that the six years of medical school is tough and should not be underestimated. She started her journey in healthcare qualifying as a paediatrician but decided to move into intensive care through a chance encounter - a theme that has guided her over the years, always jumping at new opportunities.

The ICU appealed to her high-adrenalin levels; “it’s a very exciting place to be”. So, she started what was to be a six-month job but ended up staying for eight years. “It’s a very high-pressured environment, the patients are extremely ill. It was tough, but the Head of ICU made sure we were all protected and supported so the stress was shared - there was fantastic comradery.”

The Road to Becoming the Deputy Director for The National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Prof. Blumberg became interested in infectious diseases after meeting someone who had done a course on Tropical Medicine with James Gear, who was a doyen of infectious diseases. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ It sounds like an amazing adventure and travel was a big thing in my life – this is where I wanted to be.”
Lucille enrolled for the diploma in Tropical Medicine, which was a part-time course and moved on to the hospital of infectious diseases at Rietfontein where Dr. Bennie Miller was the chief physician. The late Dr. Bennie Miller was a key figure in her life. “I just loved it, it was really a highlight of my career and I learnt everything about so many diseases from Sleeping Sickness to Malaria to Typhoid – things you don’t always learn about from books, but you learn from those who have been there and done that.”
One of the many things that make Prof. Blumberg remarkable is her approach to her career; she never had a five-year plan and has always followed her dreams by opening herself up to opportunities and never planning too much.
This led her to pursue a specialisation in Infectious Diseases even though there was no formal specialisation at that time. This meant she had to train in Microbiology, and so she did the four-year specialisation, writing her Masters dissertation on drug-resistant TB - one of the first-ever written in South Africa. “I think it’s good to have a speciality behind you because you can build on that and it allows you to diversify.”
She then moved to run the TB lab at the institute at Braamfontein and was then asked to join what is known today as the National Institute For Communicable Diseases (NICD) as the medical consultant. Her first notable moment at the NICD was the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in Southeast Asia - this event drove her to set up the structure for dealing with new emerging diseases and outbreaks in a more organised way. From there she learnt as she went, starting the Public Health Surveillance and Response which is now the leading surveillance programme for hospitalised patients. Her unit grew over the years and has become a very big division in the NICD. “I’ve dealt with every kind of outbreak that you could ever imagine, but over a period of 18 years, this is where I’ve done most of my work in outbreak response. I guess I have seen and done it all.”
In this 2020 COVID-19 outbreak, infectious disease specialists have proven their worth and abilities despite being a very undervalued group in healthcare.
Advice for Women in Healthcare
When asked about what advice she could offer to young women who want to pursue healthcare careers she says, “There are fantastic opportunities in healthcare and what you start out as wanting to do might not be where you end up, so take those opportunities, look for mentors along the way.”
Her top 10 tips:


  1. You can’t ever know it all, so always have a willingness to learn.
  2. It’s absolutely fine to ask for help - people love to be brought in and to support and help.
  3. It’s OK to make mistakes; if you don’t make mistakes you probably haven’t done enough.
  4. Look for opportunities, open yourself up.
  5. You can make up for lots of things with enthusiasm and energy.
  6. If you’re confident and have something to say, people will listen.
  7. You can’t have it all – you do pay a price somewhere along the line.  
  8. If plan A doesn’t work, see how you can bring in plan B and sometimes even plan C, but if you get to L or M or N perhaps you need to think of a new plan.
  9. Be kind. You can never be too kind, also to yourself, that’s very important.
  10. Lend a hand up – don’t keep it all for yourself.

 “You make opportunities, you grab them, you learn along the way and you don’t wait for things to happen and that’s a very important lesson.” Lucille encourages everyone to be an opportunist but to also give people opportunities along the way.