Meet Sithembile Ngidi, a young, vibrant and brilliant woman who is only one of two black female Oncologists in South Africa! Known to be an advocate for health and a believer in women empowerment, Sithembile has known that Medicine was her calling from a young age. Continue reading as Sithembile gives an inspiring account of what kept her determined to succeed as a doctor, the obstacles she has faced as a young, black, female medical professional and what the South African health care system desperately needs…
Full Name: Sithembile Ngidi
Current title: Radiation Oncologist
Company: Department of Health KZN, Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital
Current city: Durban
Sithembile, your story inspired the nation when it became known that at the age of 31, you have become KwaZulu-Natal’s first black female oncologist – and only the country’s second! Take us through the journey of attainting your remarkable achievement – has medicine always been your passion?
Medicine has always been my chosen career path. When my teacher in standard 1 asked the class to draw what we all want to be when we grow up, I drew a doctor. I drew myself in red high heels next to a patient’s bed with an injection! That picture landed up in our school magazine that year and I told myself “That’s it! That’s what I want to be when I grew up”. So I applied myself academically in school, chose the relevant subjects in high school and added an extra subject so I could score above the requirements for medical school. I believed in preparing for success.
It’s been quite a long academic journey reaching this point. I started medical school at the age of 17yrs. I knew I wanted to do something great, out of the ordinary. I’ve never for one moment believed in impossible or limitations to one’s dreams or success. I’m now living out that picture from standard 1 every day with my well-known love for high heels.
Obtaining a medical degree on its own, is a very difficult feat that requires years of dedication, hard work, sleepless nights and unwavering passion. The decision to study further and specialise shows true dedication as a medical professional. What contributed towards your decision to specialise in Oncology?
I’ve always been a dreamer and achiever so I knew I’d specialize. Initially I thought I’d become a dermatologist or a psychiatrist but I thought to myself “let me think out of the box” and so I choose a field that was uncommon – where I could make a mark. Radiation Oncology is not a field you learn in medical school and seeing oncology patients was always overwhelming for any doctor who wasn’t in an oncology unit because the treatment was so intricate and the patients looked so despondent. That encouraged me to go into oncology to make a difference in these people’s lives. I researched oncology and found that there is a part of oncology called radiation oncology. It was enticing to learn physics, radiobiology, radiation and how these physical properties are manipulated to treat patients. I was hooked and decided that’s what I want to specialize in. It’s been a tough road as it’s not easy getting into the registrar program to become a specialist – especially in the smaller, uncommon disciplines. I got a medical officer post in oncology and waited 2 years before a training post opened up; it was so worth the wait – I absolutely love what I do! Nothing beats the rush I get when I tell a patient and their family that they are cured or in remission! The joy on their faces is priceless. One thing Oncology has taught me is to believe in miracles and have faith in the face of adversity. The human body and its tenacity in survival is amazing. However, I’ve also learnt that not all stories have a happy ending. These uncommon medical fields are mainly dominated by males and there are a few specialists of colour. It’s been a lot of sweat and tears, tons of faith, prayer , a good dose of humor and determination to reach the goal I’d set for myself. There were times I just thought of dropping out and becoming a GP, but I’d always remind myself of the goal I’d set for myself: giving up on me is not an option and I’m a conqueror. God wouldn’t bring me this far just to leave me. I need to run this race not only for myself but for my kids and other women.
Why, do you believe, is the reason for there being so few black medical professionals specializing in Oncology?
We have a national historical background of Apartheid where Africans were denied the right to freedom and opportunities to study and have prestigious careers. This is also true in the medical field and certain specialties were reserved for people of a certain colour. We are quite a young democracy and many great strides have been made to try and bridge these gaps of disparity between the different races. Only now the opportunities are opening up. I wish, though, that there were more of us black specialists – there definitely needs to be more us to encourage and mentor others to also reach for these and other specialties.
What does the South African health industry need most and how can the general South African community work together to ensure the health industry flourishes and medical professionals perform at their peak?
The state service needs more human resources, better availability of essential drugs, the involvement of specialists in establishing the essential drug lists, and efficient and improved management and procurement policies and systems for equipment and supplies. The public should be made aware of the Batho Phele principles and their role in the health care system and using it correctly. Medical professionals can partake in continuous medical education to assist in performing at their peak and engage in multi-disciplinary meetings/ telemedicine teleconferences.
You are known for being an advocate for a healthy lifestyle. What heath check-ups do you believe all South Africans should commit to performing on a regular basis?
For a female:
- Pap Smear once sexually active
- Monthly self-breast examinations
- Screening Mammogram for woman over 40
- Every female child should be vaccinated against cervical cancer
For a male
- For a male over 50: screening prostate exam and Colonoscopy
Everyone should partake in a healthy balanced diet, weight management plan & exercise. No smoking and moderate alcohol intake. Reduce stress and take care of your psychological well-being.
As a female oncologist, what challenges have you faced, if any, and how have you overcome them?
This is quite a sensitive topic for me that has plagued many black specialists in their training. There is a song by Labi Siffre “(something inside)So strong” and a poem by Maya Angelou ” I rise” that pretty much sum up my struggles which I know many professional women face. I draw strength from these words. Racial prejudice is a universal problem we all face when you a part of a minority in the particular sphere you work in. People automatically ignore you, deny you, assume you are not learned enough. Your voice is not heard, you are second guessed and even humiliated in front of others. I’ve even been told that the only reason I got this post is ‘because I’m black & female’. I’ve realized that the biggest way to fight and deal with it is with knowledge. Knowledge is power. People cannot take that away from you. Strategize and succeed with your mind. I know what’s it like so I have made a personal resolution to help other female doctors who are specializing. Informally, we chat over difficulties, assist with notes, books and link up with others in their field. We support each other emotionally. Our network is small & still growing but there are plans to rope more doctors in and make it more formal.
Take us through what a typical work day looks like for you?
I get the kids ready for school and drop them off. Each day varies, as different cancers are treated on different days. I arrive at work and start at the radiotherapy department where I review treatment plans, draw tumor volumes then work at the clinic seeing patients booked for that day in the radiotherapy or oncology clinic and attend academic multidisciplinary meeting s where difficult cases are discussed and management plans finalized.
Advice for aspiring oncologists and medical professionals?
“Impossible is nothing, it doesn’t exist. Impossible means dare to dream”. This is part of a quote I got from an Adidas advert that I tore out of a magazine while I was still in medical school. I hung it on my wall every year throughout medical school and my early work life. I believed in it and adopted it as my mantra and still quote it today .
Morning or night? Night
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order? Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. I would order Grilled prawns in garlic butter
I wish I knew how to…to surf
African women are… the epitome of beauty and strength
South Africa is… a country with rich heritage
Worst money mistake… quick fix weight loss gizmo treatment. (I know…I fell for it too!)
Best investment… my education
Motivation in 3 words…Carpe Diem