Meet Africa’s youngest neurosurgeon

By Sibongile Mashaba

As Africa’s youngest neurosurgeon, the world is an oyster for 30-year-old Dr Ncumisa Jilata .
When her day starts as early as 6am, it is that cup of coffee she takes at about 6.40am that wakes her up and gets her ready for the day.

She goes to bed after 11pm, a typical work day which includes doing research and reading academic and inspirational material to improve herself professionally and personally.
“I am left with only a few months to qualify as a consultant. Then I will be a fully functional specialist,” said Jilata excitedly.

She said her journey has been demanding but she was happy with what she has achieved although a career in medicine wasn’t her first choice.

“Like most girls, I wanted to be in fashion. I wanted to be a fashion designer or movie director.

“But when I was in Grade 11, I opted for the medical field. I then applied to a number of universities before I matriculated in 2004,” said Jilata, who was born and raised in Mthatha , Eastern Cape.

After being accepted at the Walter Sisulu University, Jilata said during her varsity life she never used to party but still managed meet good friends, some of which she still keeps to this day.

She holds a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) degrees after completing a five-year programme.

“When I was in varsity, I realised that there were no neurosurgeons in our hospitals. That got me even more determined and focused on my studies,” Jilata said while calling for young people to consider it as a career.

She said she found her job fascinating.

“When I was in my fourth year, I started doing hospital rotations, which assisted students in acquiring first-hand experience on the management of patients. Instead of being nervous, I was fascinated.

“The series Grey’s Anatomy taught me a lot. Childbirth scared me a little. It was something I was never really exposed to and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In our field, when doctors talk about a liver, you see a liver and when we talk about a bowel and kidneys, we see and touch those things. It is fascinating.”

She said neurosurgery which is the medial speciality regarding the diagnosis, surgical treatment, prevention and rehabilitation of disorders which affect the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, and extra-cranial cerebrovascular system, was forever changing.

Jilata, who is single and has no children, completed her internship at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in 2010.

She then did community work at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape.
In 2013, she enrolled at the University of Pretoria to do her registrar training.

She is now based at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Tshwane where she spends most of the day in theatre, except for Wednesdays.

“I start work around 7.30am in the intensive care unit which caters for post-surgery patients who require close monitoring.

“After that, I will be in theatre all day. Operations can take up to eight hours. My professor always says, ‘when you are in theatre, you forget about time and keep going’,” she said.
Asked if there were any coffee or a bathroom breaks, she laughed and said: “Once you start you cannot stop. What I usually do is I grab something to eat before going into theatre. If one is really pressed, you can un-scrub and rush to the toilet. It is unusual though.

“However, the body has good coping mechanism and can deal with stressful situations.”
Jilata said although her registrar contract stipulates the number of working hours, they are usually busy “from 7am until we finish”.

The biggest daily challenge she faces is time management.

“When you go to theatre, you must know what you have to do. I have to do research and read a lot. I barely get time to spend with my friends. I have to sacrifice my social life. I would love to start living, now!

“Whenever I can, I do dinners with friends or we go on hiking trips. I do not have time for a boyfriend, and that opportunity [to date] has not presented itself.”

She noted that her field was male-dominated and expectations from society were that neurosurgeons should be male.

She, however, loves the feedback she sometimes get from relatives of a patient she operated on, who call her “a miracle worker”.

Jilata said with neurosurgery, it is not only about the patient but their families as well.
“When we have operated on somebody, say he had a chronic subdural [hematoma], and was deteriorating. Usually, it’s an old man who is confused and the family is concerned. He is not waking up.

“The next day, the family is thanking you and it is like you are a miracle worker. In the same light, when something goes wrong, it is equally hurting. Neurosurgery is a roller coaster of emotions.”

Jilata is currently reading Dr Judy Dlamini’s Equal But Different because she sees herself as a “potential woman leader”.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa recognised her in his budget speech in May, a few weeks after Jilata graduated from the University of Pretoria.

“In doing so, she became the sixth black female neurosurgeon in South Africa,” Rampaphosa said in his speech.

Gauteng health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa also mentioned her in her budget speech in June: “We also celebrate Dr Ncumisa Jilata in this Youth Month, for becoming Africa’s youngest neurosurgeon following her graduation on May 18, this year.

“Dr Jilata was appointed by Steve Biko Academic Hospital as a registrar,” said Ramokgopa.

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