Chess & Nelson Mandela

As what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 103rd birthday is celebrated with Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18th, we thought it fitting to dive deeper into the professional background of our Chairman Dr Charles Niehaus; once personal physician to the man himself.

A fellow South African, Charles began his journey into the field of medicine studying alongside his sister at the University of Pretoria. The appeal of being able to help people and seeing the benefits of enabling sick people to get healthy is what initially drove Charles to get involved with a life in healthcare.

Though he fully admits he wasn’t the best student in class (sitting still wasn’t a strong point!), chess, it seemed, would be his saviour at honing his focus and attention skills. It’s a game he still plays to this day, with family and friends, as a way to relax. You may even catch him for a game of speed chess on his favourite app, chess.com.

Back to the studies and an 18-year-old Charles was given a bursary by the South African military to study medicine after doing conscription service. Charles was in the fortunate position of being able to study with other medical students while his studies were paid for by the army. There followed 6 years studying medicine and 1-year community service in Pretoria. 

Charles discovered early on that his true passion lay in orthopaedic and trauma surgery, not least because it was, as he puts it “the most straightforward subject” but also because, “I loved the emergency medicine component of trauma and orthopaedics”; going on to work in the department for 9 years.

After writing his primary exams Charles’ career took an exciting turn in that he started travelling in a medical capacity with the then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. 

As Charles fondly remembers, “That was a real privilege because it took me to places that you would never ever go, he was such a special person to travel with”. Dinner in the Whitehouse, visits to the state palaces of Europe and accompanying Mandela when he had tea with the Queen being just a few of those wonderful experiences and places.

Charles was to follow Mandela’s journey for the next seven years until 2003, often being told of his next destination at a moment’s notice and with nothing but a solo suit in his possession!

In spite of his work in trauma surgery and military medical deployments to places like Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Charles admits his most challenging work would be “looking after Mr Nelson Mandela at his fragile age, because you’re the only doctor. But he was the most grateful patient I had the privilege to treat, he never complained and a lot of times it was just providing comfort.”

2003 saw Charles relocate to the UK for three months; three months that were to turn in to 19 years. Here he helped establish Netcare, a South African hospital operator, in the UK in order to relieve the waiting lists initiatives. Netcare UK successfully delivered various ISTC contracts including innovative mobile cataract treatments.

From there, Charles became part of the team at BMI Healthcare as Group Business Development Director and then on to Alliance Medical as Chief Operating and Medical Officer, serving on the EXCO at Life Healthcare after it acquired Alliance Medical in 2016. 

Supposedly retiring in 2018, Charles decided he wanted to do something more and apply his focus to other areas in healthcare. Which brings us to Hexarad. As Charles comments, “I’ve known the Hexarad team from when I was at Alliance Medical, an energetic bunch of radiologists.

They were exceptionally good at structuring themselves in a way where they are caring for their fellow clinicians. They understand the challenges that other doctors have in working on a part-time basis and all the nuances that go with that because they’ve gone through all of those challenges.

It’s a bit of a journey for all of us. Solutions are becoming more and more necessary to not only provide cost effective care but to utilise clinical resources, of which there is a global shortage, in a better way.”

On joining the team at Hexarad in April 2019, Charles happily reports he, “was really proud when they asked me to join them as chairman. It’s one of those unique businesses where you meet the people and the management team, and the philosophy and the vision is one that they actually live. They’re really passionate and I love working with them.”

Charles is particularly passionate about the public sector of healthcare, with Hexarad being a private company delivering public and private work, “There are ways of learning from highly efficient public systems how, cost effectively, they can really provide good quality healthcare to patients. I’m really interested in that.”

A man after Mandela’s heart it seems when it comes to improving healthcare, as Charles warmly remembers, “He was a great man and a great ambassador not only for South Africa but for the world in terms of reconciliation and his passion for improving healthcare for kids and the fight against diseases like HIV.”

The theme for Mandela Day 2021 is action against poverty and hunger. Sadly, poverty and health are intrinsically linked; poverty is a major cause of ill health and vice versa.

At Hexarad we believe we can help make a small, yet meaningful, contribution to global health by supporting the education of clinicians in countries with underdeveloped health systems in order to better assist patients when they are sick. For more on this, check our blog post detailing sponsorship of Malawian doctor, Dr Emmanuel Banda, to complete his radiology training in South Africa.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation www.nelsonmandela.org aims to live out his legacy by working relentlessly to find sustainable solutions to social problems including poverty and access to medicines. Whether you work in healthcare or not, we can all find small ways to change the world for the better.”