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Female surgeons make inroads in male-dominated operating rooms

Under the leadership of its new head, Dr Rajhmum Madansein, the University of KwaZulu-Natal's (UKZN's) Cardiothoracic Surgery Department is transforming its once male-dominated theatre rooms into a more diverse environment. The department made headlines last year for also producing SA's first African female cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr Lindiwe Sidali.

In a rare break with tradition, a recent procedure involved an all-woman team of cardiothoracic surgeons operating in the theatre. It included Sidali; the head of cardiac anaesthesia at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital, Dr Leanne Drummond; assistant surgeon Dr Kudzai Kanyepi; cardiac perfusionist Parasthi Maharaj and scrub nurse Sister Nonjabulo Ndlovu.

Kanyepi is a third-year cardiothoracic surgery supernumerary registrar from Zimbabwe. She attended an all-girls high school and was brought up knowing that women can do anything. "Our school motto was Gracia et Scientia, which means 'through grace and knowledge'," she says. "We were always taught to embrace being female and to be graceful, but to always push the boundaries."

Kanyepi was inspired to study surgery by one of her General Surgery professors in Zimbabwe, Professor Muguti. "My future goals and ambitions are shaped by the saying: 'Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.' I hope to return to Zimbabwe after my training and add to the unit there. And to light the candle for more female cardiothoracic surgeons," she says.

Maharaj is also an inspiring individual who spared no effort in pursuing a career she is passionate about. Maharaj grew up in the township of Phoenix, north of Durban. An alumnus of UKZN, where she graduated with a B Medical Sciences honours degree, she went on to complete a BTech Clinical Technology (cardiovascular perfusion) at the Durban University of Technology. She is currently based at Inkosi Albert Luthuli hospital.

Commenting on her career path, she says: "I have always been passionate about the medical field and I had initially taken to research. However, one day I had the opportunity to go into the operating room to watch an open heart surgery for the first time. As I stood at the top of the operating table, I peered up at a monitor displaying the patient's vitals and watched the heart rate drop until it was gone. Yes, of course the heart and lungs are stopped during a bypass procedure, and this was in part a perfusionist's responsibility. Intellectually, I understood the process, but it was another thing to watch someone's heart literally stop.

"The surgeon worked quickly, and I noticed the tremendous respect and military-precision communication between the surgeon, the anesthesiologist and the perfusionist. Once the repairs were complete, they restarted the heart without incident. I looked up again at the monitor and saw that the cardiac output had returned to normal values. I was completely overwhelmed, but all in an instant, it hit me that this is what I wanted to do.

"I loved everything about the surgical environment; the austerity, the attention to detail and the commitment of the entire surgical team."

Sidali grew up in a rural mining town between Rustenburg and Dutywa in the North West. She was inspired to persevere in life by the women who raised her, including her mother and her aunts. She began her medical career as a student in the Nelson Mandela-Fidel Castro medical collaboration programme in Cuba and completed her final year of study at the University of Pretoria, before embarking on post-graduate studies at UKZN.

Sidali is passionate about uplifting communities. "I want to pursue congenital heart surgery. I am also working on starting an outreach programme with our department to make cardiothoracic surgery accessible to smaller hospitals," she says.

Professor Ncoza Dlova, dean of the UKZN School of Clinical Medicine, was excited to receive the news of an all-female surgical team, saying: "Surgical disciplines are known to be macho and male-dominated, and the cardiothoracic department under Dr Raj Madansein's leadership has broken that stereotype. It is really refreshing to see the metamorphosis over such a short period under his leadership.

"This picture of all-female cardiothoracic surgeons busy operating in theatre on their own showcases how transformed the department is both in ethnicity and gender. I congratulate Dr Madansein's efforts to inspire his staff. He is so fatherly and caring, and his staff absolutely love him."

Words: MaryAnn Francis

Photograph: Rajhmum Madansein