Every Experience Makes You Grow

Our #HospiceVisits are back in action! To kick-start our Western Cape hospice visits, we travel 108km to visit Boland Hospice where we chat to General Manager, Maria Demjan.

How and where did your hospice journey begin?

In early 2000 I answered an advert for an “administrator” position at the newly formed Breede River Hospice. I was appointed and began my journey in palliative care. It has been influenced by some of our best palliative care people and it is through their support and friendship over the years that I am able to play a role in the Western Cape.

At Breede River I worked along a nurse with the most beautiful spirit who taught me so much about compassion and showed me her love for nursing and caring for patients. Jane Phillips and I remain friends and I am still privileged to be able to learn from her. I worked in various roles for Breede River Hospice from book keeping and fund raising to being a volunteer caregiver.  In 2004 I was appointed as the General Manager and led the organization to becoming the 11th member of HPCA to receive 5* accreditation.  We went from being a hospice with 15 patients, 2 staff and a monthly budget of R17 000 to 300 patients, 35 staff and a monthly budget of R100 000.The growth of the organization was due to the dedicated and diligent team that I was able to recruit and that were willing to follow me as their manager. 

When the PEPFAR grant was received by HPCA I was recruited to the Provincial Palliative Care Development Team to assist with Organizational Development matters (with qualifications and experience in HR Management and Financial Management I was able to take up this role).I truly enjoyed the opportunity to work with our sister organizations and assist them with their development. Working alongside Janice Atcheson the PPCD Co-ordinator was a chance for me to also grow and deepen my knowledge of managing a palliative care organization.  Janice taught me that the most important thing to remember when making decisions in a hospice is to ask yourself “how will this decision affect the patients”, she said that if you put that in the foremost of your mind you cannot make a poor decision – I still make decisions on this today.

I spent 4 years serving on the HPCA Board of Directors representing the Western Cape. The end of my Western Cape Chairperson term was the successful hosting of the HPCA national conference in Cape Town. 

It was also during this period that I became involved with the Leadership Development Programme and alongside Clare Wylie began writing modules and working on the development of this project to the place where it is today as a recognized learning programme in the HPCA stable.  Another amazing woman of palliative care, Clare Wylie taught me about my “soft” skills and enabled me to reflect on who I am and that “how” I do things is more important than my skills and what I do. 

When Janice resigned from HPCA in 2008 I applied for and was appointed to the post of Provincial Palliative Care Development Co-ordinator.I worked at HPCA for just over 4 years and left in December 2012 from the position of Leadership Development Programme Co-ordinator.Whilst at HPCA I again was lucky to be able to assist passionate NPO’s develop as organizations and also as palliative care providers.The team of co-ordinators (and later mentors as well) was extraordinary – huge personalities with a compassion for people and lifesaving sense of humours that saw us working late into the night on many occasions. I remember one night sitting in a freezing cold guest house with two colleagues from the Western Cape doing the reports after a 4 star survey and laughing until the tears rand down our faces and our side hurt – what about I cannot remember but when we did eventually get to bed we slept well from our laughter therapy. 

After HPCA I was going to take a break from Hospice work and was finalizing a project at HPCA offices in Pinelands when I bumped into Andre Wagner who was shaking his head in frustration. I asked why and he said two words – Boland Hospice.  The organization had been troubled for some time with weak leadership and poor management.  I offered to help out and was asked to be a “mentor manager” for 6 months so that they could be awarded their Department of Health Funding and continue their services and keep the doors open.  With the support and following of an amazing group of people who wanted to work and had a heart for hospice we were able to restore relationships with funders, the community and staff within that period.  The Board asked me to stay on and here I still am.

Any challenges you are faced with?

Not everyone wants to hear about palliative care and how it is positive for patients. But it is what we are passionate about – it is a human right – it is needed and it should be available to all.  There is a story of a missionary who travelled to a village in an isolated part of the world to spread the good news.  He met with the Chief of the village started to speak about the wonders of Jesus.The Chief asked why his village should care about this Jesus and what he would do for them.The missionary spoke of Jesus’ compassion, caring nature, love for his fellow man, humility and other positive traits.The chief thought for a minutes and turned to look at one of the villagers.  He pointed the villager out to the missionary and said, but we know your Jesus, that villager over there is all the things you describe.The moral of the story is that there is more impact by living the life than just spreading the word.  This is the approach I have tried to take at Boland Hospice and try to show other organizations and health care providers what palliative care is by how we provide our care and not by talking about it.

Average day at work?

I work three days a week at Boland Hospice.This means my days are very full.  My average day starts with me arriving at the office and checking in with all the staff based there as well as in the Worcester ward.Then I start reading emails including the statistics for our Witzenberg services and Counsellors programme.  One of my main roles is to build relationships so I have many meetings to ensure I am in contact and up to date with our various partners and stakeholders – internal and external.  With a staff of 220 and 7 different programmes challenges often arrive unscheduled and the rest of my time is spent putting out those fires.I go home along the beautiful Route 60 and am able to relish the mountain views and leave Hospice in Worcester which is important so that I can give it my full attention again tomorrow.


People, people, people!  It’s all about relationships whether they are between staff, patients, partners and other stakeholders. So my highlights are getting a relationship right especially when it has been negative or unproductive. I suppose the biggest highlight in the past three years has been regarding the relationship with the Department of Health and the hospice going from a place where all contracts were under threat which would have meant closing the doors to the point where they were asking us to apply for more programmes.

What are some of your hobbies?

Dogs.  Photography.  Baking.  Friends.  Donkey sanctuary. Not necessarily in that order. I have 4 dogs and two of them go to “school” every week for obedience and agility classes – I love it and so do they.

Photography – I really enjoy being able to capture the beauty around us in South Africa.  We are blessed to live in Africa where God really did spend a little more time in putting it all together. 

Baking – trying out new recipes and getting them “just right” and then sharing them with friends is always a treat (pun intended!)

Friends – with none of my family living in South Africa my friends are really important.  Relaxed lazy Sunday afternoons are the best when spent with friends.

Donkey Sanctuary – I am the HR practitioner for Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary and also a volunteer on Donkey Care.  This is a wonderful place to be and really my therapy.  When I do my care shifts with the donkeys we are not allowed a cell phone, to run, make large movements, be loud or angry.  So it really is a time to just “be” and be mindful of the animal you are caring for.  Good place to quieten my mind.

To learn more about Boland Hospice and the work they do, click here