Queen of tissue, organ donation

Septermber 29 2016: Cleopatra   Ndhlovu  is the general manager at the Centre of Tissue Engineering in Pretoria. Photo: Veli Nhlapo
© Sowetan.
Septermber 29 2016: Cleopatra Ndhlovu is the general manager at the Centre of Tissue Engineering in Pretoria. Photo: Veli Nhlapo © Sowetan.

Cleopatra Ndhlovu is like a guardian angel you look for when you are faced with a life-changing health issue.

She is the general manager at the Centre of Tissue Engineering, which is based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria.

The centre sources, processes and supplies human tissue for implants, transplants and therapeutic purposes.

Ndhlovu's job involves managing staff, seeing to organisational growth, costs and revenue.

The mother of a nine-year-old girl has a master's degree in organs, tissues and cells for transplantation from the University of Barcelona in Spain.

She is the only person in South Africa with that degree, and heading the only human tissue bank in the country.

"I love the look on a mother's face when they see their child who had sustained serious burn injuries completely recover with minimal scarring because they received a skin graft. I love hearing about people whose lives are completely changed because they received a life-saving transplant," Ndhlovu said.

Ndhlovu, 37, was the only child of a single mother in Sharpeville in the Vaal. She moved to Mamelodi, Pretoria at the age of 17.

"My mother worked hard to inspire me to believe that I can achieve anything I put my mind to and that giving up is never an option no matter what. That is the same kind of mentality I am trying to instil in my daughter."

Before the master's degree in Spain, Ndhlovu completed a bachelor of technology in biotechnology at the Tshwane University of Technology and a postgraduate degree in total quality management at the University of South Africa.

"After graduating in biotechnology, I started working as a food microbiologist but then I didn't really like the food industry and luckily biotechnology is broad enough to explore other industries.

"So in 2004 I heard that a tissue bank (Centre for Tissue Engineering) had opened at TUT at Arcadia campus. I applied for a job and I started working in January 2005 as a laboratory technician.

"I worked my way up to the current position."

Ndhlovu never dreamt of doing the work she is currently doing, but has always loved science and technology. She cited lack of knowledge about organ and tissue donation as her biggest challenge in her work.

"Our work depends on ordinary South Africans like you and I making a decision to donate their organs and tissues when they die in order to save other people's lives or improve the quality of their lives.

"[So] many people out there are on waiting lists to receive organs and tissues, but they don't receive any as the donation rates are so low."

Ndhlovu said her field has opportunities for young people with a passion for science and technology.

She was part of the team that advanced the idea to launch South Africa's first skin banking programme earlier this year.

"For the first time SA doctors don't have to import skin in order to treat burn patients."