Having taught for 31 years at a public high school in Potchefstroom, Harmen Wijnberg is not only an authority on educating teenagers, he also appreciates the importance of health and wellbeing when it comes to keeping up with his young learners and living life to the fullest.
“Last year, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling well. I kept on working but I was tired every day and I didn’t know what was going on. At the time I was feeling worried because my wife had been ill, and at first I thought I was simply experiencing the effects of stress,” 57-year-old Harmen recalls.
“I struggled to walk far and found myself gasping for breath at the slightest exertion. I tried using an asthma pump, but this did not relieve the problem.”
When he went to the doctor, Harmen was shocked to learn that a problem with his heart had been identified and he was referred to a top cardiologist in Johannesburg.
“When you or your partner are faced with a health problem, there are so many things going through your mind. The last thing you should be worried about is whether you can afford the treatment that could save your life,” he says.
“Fortunately, I am a member of the Government Employees Medical Scheme [GEMS], and the Scheme covered the bulk of the healthcare expenses, both for myself and for my wife’s treatment. “
Harmen underwent a number of tests and was diagnosed with a heart rhythm disturbance, which the cardiologist was able to treat using a minimally invasive procedure, most of which was funded by the Scheme.
“While I was in hospital for my heart, they also tested my breathing overnight during sleep. I was astonished when the results showed that I actually stopped breathing 40 times during the night – and I was completely unaware that this was happening to me every night.”
Harmen was diagnosed with a condition known as obstructive sleep apnoea, whereby the individual’s sleep is repeatedly disrupted as their airway becomes blocked.
“My wife had mentioned that she heard me snoring loudly at night, but neither of us imagined that it was a serious problem. No wonder I was feeling so exhausted during the day, as every night I was repeatedly suffocating without even realising it.”
Doctors advised Harmen to lose some weight to help lessen his sleep apnoea and also prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which is a special ventilation machine with a facemask to be worn during sleep to prevent episodes of sleep apnoea.
“GEMS covered the costs of the CPAP machine, and I have also succeeded in losing quite a bit of weight, although I aim to slim down even further in the interests of my health. I am breathing easily now and I have much more energy than before. Never again will I underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep or take my health for granted,” Harmen says.
“A few months ago, GEMS held a lekgotla roadshow here in Potchefstroom. Some of the members voiced their concerns about the scheme and healthcare. After my positive experience with GEMS covering my and my wife’s medical expenses, I decided to stand up and tell my story.
“I explained to the other members about the importance of managing their benefits effectively and understanding what they are entitled to on their chosen option plan. I hope that this information helped to empower the other members so that they can get the best out of their relationship with GEMS.
“People complain that they have to pay every month for medical aid, even if they do not claim. I explained to them that it is a case of ‘give and take’, and that a medical scheme has to be responsible and protect the funds so that there is enough money available when you, as the individual member who has paid every month, needs it one day.”
GEMS Acting Executive: Communications and Member Affairs, Zandile Nqweni-Chamane, notes that the Scheme has been reaching out to members through the lekgotla roadshows to hear their concerns and help educate members about the processes and programmes that are in place to help make members’ funds stretch further.
“The lekgotlas are an excellent opportunity to engage with members and help us get closer to them. As was the case with Mr Wijnberg, often our members share their experiences and provide another perspective in these meetings. Other members also offered practical solutions that we take back to our executives for consideration at the end of our roadshow campaign,” Nqweni-Chamane notes.
Harmen thanked GEMS for providing peace of mind during the couple’s health crisis. “If the Scheme had not been there for us, we would have had big financial troubles to worry about – and stress is the last thing you need when you’re trying to focus on getting well.”
“As you get older, you begin to appreciate the value and security of belonging to a medical scheme. I am so grateful for all GEMS has done for my wife and I,” he concluded.
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