Kudzai Kanyepi’s face lights up when she starts explaining her relationship with her first group of 12 patients to undergo open heart surgery in Zimbabwe.
It is easy to tell that Kanyepi is passionate about her chosen field of specialty. She is Zimbabwe’s first and only female cardiothoracic surgeon.
A cardiothoracic surgeon performs surgery on the heart, lungs or esophagus and other parts of the chest.
Such surgeries can range from a heart valve replacement or heart transplant to treating lung cancer or esophageal cancer.
Cardiothoracic surgeons have extensive training and can specialise in heart surgeries or other areas. What makes Kanyepi unique is that she is one of the only five such surgeons in the country.
“You realise you have to put in more time, you have to work harder just to show that you can also do the job.
“Slowly, but surely, people are changing the perspective,” she told Standard People.
“As more and more people realise that you can have a female neurosurgeon, you can have a female cardiac surgeon, you can have a female orthopedic surgeon, and perspectives are changing.
“It’s great to watch as the medical field changes and more females join the surgical fraternity.
“It had always been male dominated, but more and more females are entering surgery.”
That Kanyepi decided to come back to practice in Zimbabwe at a time other skilled doctors were leaving the country is proof that she is a patriotic citizen, who has high hopes for better service delivery in the country’s health sector.
“The reason I came back, it’s great to help your own people and when we started the programme, we found a lot of patients and we were very skeptical and the few that said yes to us, we walked the journey with them as they walked with us,” she said.
“It was an experience for us and the patients.
“We only have five cardiothoracic surgeons in Zimbabwe, including myself, so the need is big.
“If we don’t come back and start serving our own people, we would be doing a great disservice to our people.”
In the United States, the base salary for a cardiothoracic surgeon ranges from US$413,800 to US$647,100 with the average base salary of US$516,200 per year.
On Wednesday last week, Kanyepi seemed the odd one out as a group of surgeons at Parirenyatwa Hospital celebrated their first open heart surgery milestone in Zimbabwe, where they operated on 12 individuals and registered a 100% success.
Speaking on the sidelines of the event where she was the main attraction, Kanyepi said she was always nervous, but hopeful the operations would be successful whenever they are going into the theatre.
Parirenyatwa is the only hospital in Zimbabwe where the operations are being done.
“When we started this initiative we knew that we had the skills, we knew that the system would support a cardiac programme,” she said.
“We didn’t go into it not knowing that we are capable.
“Our first initiative was well supported from the intensive care unit (ICU) and theatre staff.
“We supported each other, so it was team work, camaraderie, between us surgeons and the nursing teams.
“We would really discuss and if we faced any challenges we would review everything together.
“It was both a journey and experience for us and we continue to enjoy operating on patients that we are making a difference to back home,” she said.
Kanyepi said she gradually fell in love with the field when she was in South Africa and has never looked back.
“When I finished medical school I never looked for a specialty where I would be the first,” she added.
“ I think I fell in love with the heart when I spent some time in Durban and I realised that this was my calling, so I trained in South Africa, there I was not the only female.
“I trained with several other women who kept encouraging us and being the first is not where it should end.
“Definitely there should be more that will come after me. I’m happy to say the second will be starting training soon in South Africa.”
Kanyepi said being the first; one breaks a lot of boundaries.
“You learn a lot of things as you go along but definitely, I don’t want to remain the first,” she said.
“When I decided to come back to Zimbabwe, I asked myself; who would help the majority of Zimbabweans suffering and dying without getting the chance to be helped?
“I felt that someone had to do it.
“The thought of someone close to me, maybe my mother, father, or any other relative dying because I was not there to provide this service to them overwhelmed me and I decided to come back to be there for the majority of my countrymen,” she said.
Back to her experience with patients in the open heart surgery programme which started in June this year, Kanyepi said the team had become family.
They also built a relationship that goes beyond the theatre.
“I get to talk to most of the patients before the surgeries. I get to know them quite personally, to know their families. So, for me it’s not just that they are my patients.
“When I see them in the corridors, they become almost like friends.
“For me, it’s important to build those relationships because as much as we have changed their valves, they still have this lifelong valve they have to take care of.
“We will see them regularly, so it is important for us to build important relationships with them. It brings the heart back into medicine.
“Yes, we deal with the heart, but it brings back the compassion, the empathy back into medicine.
“That is what patients need, it’s not just they need their operation done but they need to know that their doctors care about them, they need to know that we bring back the heart and the empathy.”
After completing her undergraduate medical training at the University of Zimbabwe, Kanyepi spent six years training to be a cardiothoracic surgeon in Durban, with support from the Zimbabwe Manpower Development Fund.
On completion of her studies, she became the 12th woman in Africa to qualify in the field while four more have since qualified since then.
With many patients seeking funds to travel to India and other countries for surgeries, Kanyepi says she and her fellow cardiothoracic surgeons are available and more than capable of giving them the services they require.