Fulfilling a burning life-long desire

Nomusa Shezi is a 32 year old lady from KwaZulu-Natal. She is the province’s first black female neurosurgeon. We spoke to Shezi about her career path, how it came about. As usual, we delve in to her upbringing and where she is headed from here because we value the journey and the lessons it brings to our readers.

BD: Please tell us about your upbringing

NS: I grew up in a Christian orientated family, if I was not at school I was in church. My home life was orientated around social gatherings and community upliftment projects.

BD: What are some of your fondest memories of both primary and high school?

NS: My fondest memory of Primary school was a school trip in grade 6- My first ever trip out of PMB. The school trip was to the Battle OF ISANDLWANA, It was both a cultural education, and the great pride of seeing a Zulu-led army with primitive weapons beat a British modernised army. I think why it stayed with me was finding a point in history where we were victorious because most of our history books do not highlight the times African armies are victorious. As for high school, there were many, but I think being in the provincial finals for my high school’s debating team is definitely in the top 10. I think there is nothing more exhilarating then mental sparring.

BD: What kind of a neighbourhood did you grow up in?

NS: I grew up in the suburbs of Pietermaritzburg, in my primary school years. It was really a close knit community. We lived in a cul du sac and all the families knew each other and the children played together and studied in the same school. It really was an ideal time, despite the hardship around us, we made time to enjoy our young and care free lives

BD: You knew, as early as grade 3 that you wanted to become a doctor. At the time, did you just want to be a doctor, or was there a reason behind the interest?

NS: My parents did  not shield me from the harshness of reality, in fact I think my mother wanted me to be as well educated as she could teach me, so I would not die of mis-information, as so many young people did. I was aware of the epidemic of HIV  and at that time ARV’s were not available, so it was almost a weekly occurrence that funerals would be happening, someone you knew, someone you were related to or someone who was your elder in their 20’s was being buried. This birthed in me a deep desire to help and so I would always say, when asked what I wanted to do when I grow up-I want to be a Doctor. My essay in Grade 3 was in line with that, as I felt that if I could find the cure for HIV I would be able to help thousands of people.

BD: If not medicine, what else would you have studied?   

NS: To tell you the honest truth, nothing else, I always joked with my friends that had I not been chosen for medicine I would have had a hard time in university. The joke being our applications forms, I think they were called CAO forms, forced one to have a first and second and third choice to study. I chose medicine as first but for the last two options, I closed my eyes, opened random pages and dropped a pen on a random subject- I cannot tell you what they were.

BD: A career like medicine takes a lot of dedication and discipline. Do these qualities come naturally for you or did you have to learn them?

NS: I would like to say they come naturally, but the truth is the discipline to stay focused was hard learned. I had to learn that failure does not define me, but giving up will be the definition of my life. So for me the discipline and dedication required to complete any challenging obstacle is always under pinned by my unwillingness to give up, my unwillingness to be defeated by a non-breathing thing, I say if others before accomplished this great feat-than so can I.

BD: Why neurosurgery?

NS: A lot of reasons, one of my inspirations was and is still Dr Ben Carson: at the age of 35 years He operated on conjoined twins a first in his field. Seeing a black male achieve such excellence in the field of medicine and science was an eye opener for me, I think I will be corny and quote President Barack Obama, But I honestly had a “YES we Can” moment. I was inspired to be great beyond my physical and social limitation and to also expect more of my self than what others would be content with. Neurosurgery is a beautiful field to study in this age that we live in. Science has not fully mapped out the brain, it still has so much undiscovered territory to be discovered and mapped for future generations. I love being in a challenging field, where my peers and seniors are still pushing the boundaries, there is room to grow, to discover and most importantly to invent.

Neurosurgery as a field, especially in South Africa is a relatively young field. There are not nearly enough Neurosurgeons in public service in this country, so it is really an essential field to study and cultivate academically.

BD: You are one of just 5 black female neurosurgeons in South Africa. How does it feel to hold this title?

NS: This question I cannot answer without first clarifying that, when I joined Neurosurgery- the thought of being one in 5 in a country of 55million, did not cross my mind. I will say though that I am honoured to be amongst this small group of ladies, I have met most of them and I can honestly say they are truly phenomenal women. Dr Wilheminah. Makhambeni remains a formidable role model to me, to this day, she being the first in the country to qualify as a Black female Neurosurgeon.

BD: In many specialised fields, black people struggle with the fact that they have to work harder than other races to earn respect. How is the medicine field?

NS: The challenges are the same, but different. The race challenge in this country will take a long while to overcome. The uniqueness of medicine is that, despite the large volume of books one has to read and perfect, being an excellent doctor and surgeon cannot happen in the confines of the library, Medicine and more so surgery is truly an apprentice type training. Someone needs to take you to theatre and basically hold your hands until your hands are perfect in the skill of cutting. That perpetuate the challenge, because you may force people to hire females {{even if they disrespect them and disregard them as equals) but you really cannot force them to teach, to allow females the space to be every bit as good {if not better} then themselves. So the struggle continues and this viscous cycle results in less people wanting to join a field where they will undergo such unfair hardships, and most black people are so traumatised by the under graduate training that they will not be persuaded to study further and specialise .

BD: What makes your job fulfilling?

NS: I find fulfilment in my line of work in really being able to offer help .when most people have given up. The place where the family and patient have tried everything and then they come to hospital really not expecting much and our work changes their life. As painful as it can get at times, my fulfilment comes at being there for the family when their loved ones have undergone a really scary procedure and they need someone to provide them with hope. I enjoy seeing patients come into the ward in severe pain or significant disability and coming out feeling and looking so much better

BD: What makes your job challenging and how do you overcome these challenges?

NS: They are so many challenges in working in the government sector. I think one of my most challenging aspects is realising how ill-informed people are about what we can offer them. They stay at home with diseases we would cure until it is too late, they go to traditional healers first and only to us as a last resort, thus the results always skew badly and they further perpetuate the notion that people die in hospital. There are wonderful life saving procedures that the government has made available to every race and creed in our country and it really is a challenge when people die because they lack knowledge. I try and educate people as best I can, hoping the knowledge I pass on will be passed on to a friend, a relative or loved one who will need it. I cannot help but feel I should, do more to educate and inform the general public.

Dr GraduatingBD: Who motivates you and in what way?

NS: My father, He has given me one of my greatest foundations. Knowing my identity. Knowing who I am, allows me to not be defined by where I am or what I face. He has taught me that when I know my Identity in Christ- that I am made in the likeness of God, therefor my character and strength lies in knowing Him and not in the spaces where I have tried and failed. My mother amongst many other areas has taught me to be a leader, through watching her and observing her life. She has taught me that leaders first have to learn to lead themselves{You cannot give direction if you yourself are directionless} She has taught me some of the skills of transformational leadership, which have allowed me to learn to be gracious to those that ill treat me, to be humble and to learn to lead from the back. I still struggle with the lesson of keeping quiet and being wise with my words, but then again I am still a work in progress.

BD: Where do you want this gift to take you?

NS: My goals are still in progress. I wish to start a functional Neurosurgery unit in KZN- Functional neurosurgery deals with Epilepsy surgery- for patients who do not respond to medical therapy which can be costly and lifelong. It deals with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s, which can be treated with Deep brain stimulation. This unit will need not just my expertise but a whole team from Neurologist {medical specialist] to Neurophysiologist and psychologist etcetera. This team will take a while to formulate but I am committed to the project. It is also in my life goals to provide world class health services for rural communities, which might mean me venturing into the private world, as government has the hard burden of proving care for millions within very stringent bureaucratic red tape. This will involve health care centres, rehabilitation centres and hospital, so I am hoping this field with allow me the freedom and finances to pursue this goal.

BD: What do you do to relax after a long day?

NS: I enjoy reading, mostly non-fiction I enjoy John Grisham and Jeffery Archer and am in the process of trying to obtain as many of their publications as possible. I enjoy going to the beach, mostly to sit and read with the calming waves around me.

BD: What would you say to a young person looking to study medicine?

NS: My advice is study what you love, because the truth is no career path is without challenges. So when the challenges come, you are at least in the field of your heart’s desire. Do not presume to deserve anything by virtue of being alive, at times life is unfair and the odds can be stacked against you-Do not let that deter you from your goals, make a choice that failure is not an option and keep on trying until success knowns your name. You do not need a room full of people to achieve greatness, a handful will do, so choose your companions wisely.


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