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Homegrown Heroes - Frontline Workers

After rising above their circumstances to save their own lives, Nurse Tiffany Pienaar, and Paramedic Martin Titus, focused their efforts on saving the lives of others. And their selflessness has never been more important than today.


Homegrown Heroes - Frontline Workers

The frontline and frontline workers are terms that only recently became part of our everyday language. As the Covid-19 pandemic swept over the planet in 2020 the nurses, paramedics and doctors who took the fight to the virus became collectively known as our defenders closest to the enemy.  

But the frontline, that point at which a band-aid or two Disprins won’t be enough to get you back to full health, has been there all along. And the individuals who work on that line have been plying their trade, keeping us all safe for many centuries. 

Tiffany Pienaar and Martin Titus are two frontline workers. A nurse and a paramedic respectively, they’re employed by the Constantia Mediclinic to keep the residents of the southern parts of Cape Town alive and well to the best of their abilities. Reaching the goals they set out for themselves, however, was not easy.

“I grew up in Cape Town in a small neighbour-hood close to the hospital in Diep River,” Tiffany told me, taking off precious minutes from her shift. “When I was a teenager, drug abuse was rife in the area, and it still is today. The impact that had on me is that I knew that this is not what I wanted for myself. I knew I had to better myself for my future and my kids’ future.”

For Martin, the path to the accidents and emergency situations where he saves lives every day was similarly difficult. "I spent most of my childhood in Bellville and Belhar in Cape Town. [My family] was very poor and the only thing I had going for myself was that I was determined to change something,” he said, clothed in his red and blue Mediclinic uniform – a welcome sight to anyone in distress – ready to leave the interview at a moment’s notice. 

Yet, however trying Martin’s and Tiffany’s circumstances were growing up without any role models to look to, the role of their families, and in particular their parents, played a part in laying the foundation to build a life on. Despite the forces and influences that could lead them astray and the odds stacked against them financially, sage advice and life truths saw them through. 

“I remember one day,” Martin said, “my mom told me something. She was mad at me for going out with friends. These friends were not the best [influence] at the time, and her wisdom was, it doesn’t matter who your friends are, it doesn’t matter what they do, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it. Those words resonated with me to this day. I never did what they did, even though I hung out with them. I withdrew myself from what they got up to and spent time on improving myself, on working my butt off.”

Like any specialised field, working in a medical environment requires special skills and attributes. The stress, long shifts and responsibilities that come with the job are not for everyone. In fact, according to Tiffany, nursing is a calling not a job. “You have to be passionate about what you do. You work with people, with people’s lives every day. Three of the most important attributes to have are empathy and compassion and a very strong work ethic.”

“As a paramedic in the pre-hospital environment, it’s important to remain very calm under pressure, because the elements are extreme,” Martin told me. “It’s raining, it’s hot and there is family around. You have to manage the patient within all that chaos.”


With limited opportunities to get enrolled for tertiary education straight after school, both Martin and Tiffany called on their grit, passion and determination to get themselves qualified. As it turned out there were, and are, many ways to reach your dreams when the traditional route to success is out of reach.

“A Mediclinic learnership gave me the option to work and study at the same time,” Tiffany said. “For me, that was a better option than doing a four-year degree. I studied two years while working in the medical ward at Mediclinic. I had to work full time and study while being a single parent. 

I worked 12-hour shifts. It wasn’t easy, but doable, and I overcame it. You have to manage your time and set goals.” Becoming a paramedic was not at all what I envisioned for myself,” Martin said. “In school, I was quite interested in chemical engineering, but then I saw an advert for firefighting. I did the assessments with a friend – and we got in – although that was not the expectation at all as the requirements sounded a little ridiculous. ‘You must do 2.4 kilometres within ten minutes’ they told us! But we did it, and got in.” 

Martin fought blazes as a firefighter for about eight years, working 24-hour shifts while studying at the University of Cape Town to earn his degree. He used to spend all his time between university and work, he said, but that wasn’t going to stop him because he had a plan. And as is often the case with people who know where they’re going, the universe conspired at the very beginning of his days as a firefighter and led Martin to an emergency situation on the outskirts of Cape Town where his heart started to race for all the right reasons. “There was a case in Gugulethu where an old lady required some assistance. Just being a level three firefighter at the time, there was a limited number of things I could do for her and that was really frustrating. So, a paramedic came out and intervened and essentially saved this lady’s life and I was, like, damn, this is really interesting. I decided then and there to go and study.”


The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it an unprecedented influx of patients into the wards of Mediclinic. As the number of infections rose in the beginning of 2020, so did the stress levels among the staff of the hospital, who suddenly found themselves on a frontline they hadn’t encountered before, in the unenviable position of having front row seats while the drama unfolded.  

“This is my 11th year with Mediclinic, and we’ve never seen anything like the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Tiffany. “Even though I’ve grown accustomed to a degree of suffering, I’ve never seen this amount of devastation. As much as it has been difficult and frustrating, it’s also been educational. I worked in a Covid-19 unit in the first and second wave and you learn so much. With everything we learnt, we’re better prepared for the third wave.”

“It’s been a very eye-opening process,” Martin said of his experience working during a pandemic. “We need to educate people at every point of contact and tell them to take care of themselves and take care of their family. [Covid-19] is not a plug-and-patch solution. The patient is struggling to breathe and that’s an acute problem. But not everyone is severely ill and sometimes it requires just holding the patient’s hand, having a chat, and reducing the anxiety of which there is a lot out there as a result of misinformation.” “Something that you learn, is that the more you know, the less you actually know and that just makes you want to know more,” Martin added while the topic of learning came up. “It’s a weird paradox, but it can’t be truer in the medical field.”  

When I asked Tiffany and Martin as to what keeps them motivated, they didn’t think long. The answers seemed to be on the tips of their tongues. “Two things,” said Tiffany. “The first is the patients. When I can see that they’re happy and recovering, that keeps me motivated. And secondly, my daughter.” Martin echoed the sentiment. “When I see a thank you in the face of a patient, they don’t even have to say it, it goes such a long way.”


The Devastating Statistics of the Effect of Covid-19 on Frontline Workers In May of 2020:

A total of 152 888 infections and 1413 deaths were reported.
Infections were mainly in women (71.6%) and nurses (38.6%). 
Deaths were mainly in men (70.8%) and doctors (51.4%).
General practitioners and mental health nurses were the highest risk specialities for deaths. 
There were 37.2 deaths reported per 100 infections for frontline workers aged over 70 years.


Be a citizen of South Africa
Hold a valid Grade 12 / Matric certification or higher
Not be registered for study at SANC / SA Nursing Council
Have passed Mathematics / Mathematical Literacy Level 4 (NQF) with 40% or higher
Have passed English Literacy Skills Level 4 (NQF) with 40% or higher
Pay the non-refundable registration fee
Register on the Mediclinic learnership website at any time of the year and then simply apply once the application process opens.


Earn a degree at a university.
Certain universities offer a 4-year Bachelor’s Degree in Emergency Care (BEMS).
Graduates of this programme are qualified as Emergency Care Practitioners and able to provide the highest level of pre-hospital emergency care available.
A 2-year Diploma in Emergency Medical Care is also available. 
This qualification is offered by accredited institutions. 
Graduates will be registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa as a paramedic. 
In addition, Mediclinic offers a Diploma in Emergency Medical Care, in Cape Town.

For more information see the nursing career profile or the paramedic career profile.