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Meet Zimbabwe’s first female cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr Kudzai Kanyepi

Story by Abigirl Tembo, Health Editor

THE medical field has long been appreciated as a calling, characterised by long working hours and dedication to duty which has seen many Zimbabwean doctors coming back to serve their country after training abroad.

One such individual is Dr Kudzai Kanyepi, Zimbabwe’s first female cardiothoracic surgeon who is now based at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals.

Dealing with the heart, lung and major arteries, cardiothoracic surgeons are very few, with five of them being Zimbabweans.

Among them is Dr Kanyepi who is engraved in the medical history books as she is Zimbabwe’s first female cardiothoracic surgeon, the 13th in Africa and the 4th of African descent.

A product of government’s Manpower Development Programme, Dr Kanyepi did her cardiothoracic speciality at the University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa after obtaining her medical degree at the University of Zimbabwe.

“Every time I meet someone who hears that I specialised in South Africa, they are like, why are you back? And I always tell them that when you practice a career such as being a doctor there are three things that are important. First is professional growth, second is personal growth and the third is service. I mean you can serve anywhere outside the country and provide a service that will be thought of as great outside the country, but there is nothing more rewarding than serving your own people, so I came back because I wanted to serve my own people. We only have five cardiothoracic surgeons in Zimbabwe including myself, so the need is big. So, if we don’t come back and start serving our people, we will be doing a great disservice to our own people,” she said.

Now in her sixth month at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, Dr Kanyepi says she does not regret her decision to come back home and serve at public hospitals.

“Since I came back, the journey has been rewarding. There are patients who have made an impact on my life that reaffirmed my decision to come back. Yes, things may not be where we want them to be, but the only way we can get where we want them to get is if we continue to advocate for our patients, and for ourselves because we at any point in time can be patients too, so we need to always advocate for where we want things to be. Yes, they are not where we want them to be, but my purpose for coming back is also for advocacy,” she added.

Dr Kanyepi believes Zimbabwe has a formidable team of specialist health professionals who has the capacity to tackle complex operations.

“That’s the nice thing about capacity, you learn to crawl, walk and then to run. So, one of the things I must mention is that I was trained by the Ministry of Health and Child Care. They supported my training in South Africa and this is all in an effort to build capacity to be able to treat our own patients locally and why I say that is because we now have the manpower.

“We probably have more cardiac surgeons in Zimbabwe than some of our partners within the region excluding South Africa, so we now have the capacity and at the skill level, we now need to continue to advocate to get us to those standards where we can now treat our own patients who are going to India. For example, there are some things that we can treat here in Zimbabwe, for example, there are some children born with a problem in the heart called a patent ductus arteriosus who are doing these operations regularly. There is no waiting list for these operations and our children survive, so our capacity is slowly scaling up. So as we learn to walk and run, very soon you will hear that we have started doing all these operations being done in India here in Zimbabwe.”

Even the patients are impressed by local doctors.

“These doctors are helpful. From the very first day I was operated on, the operation was very successful only, but I strained my leg too much. But when I came back for the second time until now am really impressed with how they conduct their work and their expertise,” said Tatenda Kanhondo, a patient.

The team of specialist surgeons working at Parirenyatwa is conducting several medical procedures ranging from the repair of abnormally dilated arteries that can rupture to the removal of the oesophagus for cancer and pericardiectomies which is the removal of the sac that encases the heart, which is usually removed when it is affected by TB.

Operations to save children born with a heart condition called patent ductus arteriosus, which is an abnormal communication of arteries near the heart are also being conducted at Parirenyatwa as the government works on modalities to resume open heart surgeries locally, an indication that the country’s health sector has turned the corner.

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