The then-deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa in an Address to the National Assembly praised Dr Ncumisa Jilata for being the youngest Neurosurgeon in Africa. Dr Jilata is currently one of five black women neurosurgeons in the country at the moment.
While this is a big achievement, it is also a wake-up call to South Africans, particularly those in positions of power, that it is high time to open doors for black aspiring professionals. Barriers to access to education and formerly made-for-whites careers need to be broken down to allow diversity in various fields, including the medical fraternity.
In this A Woman Belongs, Dr Jilata shares her inspiring story and gives us insights into the life of a neurosurgeon.
She tells her inspiring story below…
Q. When the medical gloves, the mask, and scrubs are off; who is Dr Jilata?
I am a soft-spoken, gentle, and kind young woman who spends most of my time indoors reading books, watching home décor TV programs or spending time with my close-knit family. If I am not indoors, you are most likely to find me at my office reading up on past neurosurgery cases or typing some of my work. I am the firstborn out of three children (all women) and I still have both parents and siblings. I am affectionately called “Aunty Ncush,” which is a name introduced to me by my nephew.
I am a woman from a rural province, and my main goal is to provide neurosurgical services to the smaller communities in various provinces. As part of my leisure time, I travel internationally. I take annual trips to different places by myself or with close friends.
Q. What are some of your fondest childhood memories and why?
My fondest memories are those numerous times where I received awards for best performance at school. Through these achievements, I got motivated to continue studying and to explore any sector I had an interest in.
Surprisingly, some of my earliest and fondest memories include my wanting to be a fashion designer or chef. I used to draw beautiful ball gowns which I put up on the walls in my room. I would also watch cooking shows and I was always trying out new recipes, which unfortunately my family had to try out. But through all that I had a normal childhood and I enjoyed being a child who would play with other children in the street. That’s how I met my best friend.
Q. Growing up in a rural province can potentially limit your dreams because of the lack of exposure. Who are the people who played a role in broadening your worldview and motivating you to dream bigger and better?
I grew up watching a lot of TV so I would see characters on TV and how they lived their lives, what kind of work they were doing and that’s what prompted me to take my schoolwork seriously. I knew that if I wanted the kind of lifestyle I dreamt of living, I would have to work extra hard to make sure that I live up to that expectation I had made for myself.
I think I always mention this because of the impact it had on me, but I was raised by hard-working parents who encouraged all of us to take school seriously as it is the one thing that no one can ever take away from you. Through all the strides they made, I have learnt from them to always chase your dream and not to quit until you have reached your ultimate end goal.
Q. What does a typical day at the hospital look like for you?
A typical day for me starts with a visit to the casualty to check on emergency patients that have just been admitted to the hospital and determine what type of procedure will be done on what patient. Once that is done, I start with my ward rounds to monitor post-op patients and to find out their progress.
As part of my day, I also have consultations for clinical patients and medico-legal patients. Some days it is not possible to attend to all these matters in a single day, so it requires me to move some of these services to the following day/s.
Q. What does the process of transitioning from a general practitioner to a neurosurgeon entail? Walk us through the steps.
After obtaining my degree at Walter Sisulu University, I became a medical intern for two years. Being an intern gave me exposure to all the medical departments, which I am grateful for because it enabled me to see a gap and the need for more neurosurgeons in the country. Once my internship was over, I then did one year of community service in Port Elizabeth where I gained tremendous experience in surgery. After this year I then became a medical officer (MO). This is the point where I faced the difficult challenge of deciding on what to specialise in as I had an interest in Neurosurgery and Ophthalmology.
I then researched these two speciality programs, and I finally made my decision to follow the neurosurgery field. I registered for this program under the University of Pretoria (UP), and when I had completed all my examinations I still had to do Masters, which I completed as well. It hasn’t been an easy road to travel because of having to study whilst working, but it has been a road worth travelling.
Q. You officially became a neurosurgeon in 2017. What were some early hurdles that shaped or defined you?
The hardest hurdle to date has been people not trusting me because of my age, gender, and race. There are times where people would walk into the room and ask to see the Dr, meanwhile, I am in the doctor’s chair waiting to start with a patients’ consultation. That to me indicates how far behind we are as a nation in terms of trusting each other, and each other’s professions, especially in terms of race. Be that as it may, I continued soldiering on and doing my work, to a point where I do not have to introduce myself anymore or prove to anyone that I know what I am doing.
Q. You are one of five black women neurosurgeons in South Africa. How does that make you feel?
Honestly, I am humbled by the love and appreciation I have received from the world at large. For me it was about fulfilling a calling, doing what I love (which is operating on the brain and spine). I feel so touched by the world having confidence in me and entrusting me with their lives because I know what I am doing.
On a random day, I meet people who will come up to me and tell me how much they are inspired by my work and the results that arise from it, and how some of them or their children are considering careers in medicine because of me. Without me knowing it, I feel like I am making a difference in the lives of young women and their views on medicine.
Q. What do you believe are the stumbling blocks preventing more black women from entering neurosurgery?
I found that most women, myself included, have fear of starting in a previously male-dominated field. In some instances, women are based in places where it would be difficult for them to proceed with this type of speciality because of the lack of resources. The main solution is to create environments where anyone anywhere can freely train for neurosurgery, and not have to move to a different area in search of training facilities.
Lack of representation has been a significant limiting factor, it is improving with time and intention from the current professionals in neurosurgery. The media as well plays a pivotal role in showcasing the potential of black women in this country.
Q. The then-deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa thanked you for inspiring and challenging South Africans to break barriers. What barriers do you still want to break?
I want to break the neurosurgical barriers in most of the rural provinces. In most small towns across the country, there are no neurosurgical services offered. You find that patients must travel long distances to the nearest tertiary hospitals, where they must still register under a long list of neuro patients that need to be attended.
We need to break this particular health barrier by bringing these neurosurgical services closer to communities. If detected early, most complications would not arise, and in some instances, a certain percentage of deaths would be prevented.
Africa has a lot to offer including cutting edge medical technology, it is up to us the young specialists to change the biases.
Q. Being extremely conscious about our health is a no brainer nowadays. What advice can you offer our readers on how to best take care of their immune system in the upcoming festive season?
I would advise the readers to wear their masks at all times, maintain social distance, sanitize their hands and surroundings at regular intervals, and also take their vitamins daily.
I cannot overemphasise the importance of regular exercise and healthy eating for overall well being. One way to stay healthy is through activities such as meditation for mental balance and wellbeing.
Q. Vaccine-hesitancy is also high in the country, and we are far from reaching herd immunity. Can you briefly explain in layman’s terms why it is pivotal to vaccinate?
Vaccines assist the body to fight off infections. Lots of research is done beforehand to ensure safety and efficacy. Together we can control the spread of COVID 19, by ensuring that everyone has some form of immunity.
Q. Describe your ideal holiday?
My ideal holiday is an overseas trip where I get to unwind by the beach, listen to the waves and do absolutely nothing for the first few days. Once the relaxation period has ended, I do a lot of sightseeing which involves capturing all the moments on camera and trying out the local cuisine. During every holiday I take, I make sure to bring home some souvenirs. These are mostly given to family and friends, and some are used for home décor.
I also love learning about other cultures and how the locals relate.
Q. What was the last book you read or are currently reading?
I am actually reading a novel called “Stillness Is The Key”. This book was given to me by the daughter of a patient who I treated. She wanted to thank me for saving her dad’s life.
The book is about slowing down on the fast-paced life we face daily, and how one can control themselves before they “lose themselves” to the world. It gives insight into how one must just find peace, comfort, and relaxation time amid their busy schedules. I found this book befitting to my schedule as I always lose track of time because of work. But lately, I am trying my utmost best to give myself some relaxation and quality time.
What struck us about Dr Jilata is her response to the question about what barriers she still wants to break. Putting people first, and the most disadvantaged is what truly makes a great doctor. May her star continue to rise!
Dr Jilata practices at Mediclinic, Sandton as a Neurosurgeon.