Carving a place in man's world of neurosurgery

Coceka Mfundisi Picture: Twitter
Coceka Mfundisi Picture: Twitter

Growing up in the rural town of Engcobo in former Transkei, Coceka Mfundisi always had a dream to be a doctor.

The 36-year-old now based in Gauteng was the fifth black woman in South Africa to qualify as a neurosurgeon.

Mfundisi graduated at the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. She also has a Master of Medicine in neurosurgery from the University of Pretoria. Her special interest is neurotrauma, neuro-oncology and spinal surgery.

Her job entails surgical treatment of neurological conditions which affect the head, brain and spine, including the spinal cord and its nerve roots.

"It was not smooth sailing but determination kept me going. I first came across neurosurgery at UCT as an undergrad. I was generally fascinated by neuroscience and my [temperament] would lead me to an interest in neurosurgery," Mfundisi said.

"One of the trainees nurtured my curiosity and took me to theatre where he removed a tumour. It was amazing how quickly the patient recovered and from that moment I knew, I wanted to do the same thing. At that moment neurosurgery made sense to me, especially because I like to walk unchartered territories and at the time there were no black women neurosurgeons and I saw that as a nice challenge."

Mfundisi was told she would last six months before succumbing to the pressure.

"The training can be very intense but the challenges of misogyny and racism had to be overcome. "Because there were not many women doing neurosurgery, I felt it to be such a lonely journey. There was an elderly neurosurgeon who once advised that this speciality was not suitable for a woman like myself. However, I was not going to be deterred so I went on despite such discouraging remarks. I'm glad I pushed harder as this is a fascinating speciality that can give excellent outcomes. It can also lead to heart-breaks for the surgeon when things don't go well."

She said there were few women of all races. "At times I feel that there are so many man-made barriers to discourage women in general from taking on the speciality."