Zimbabwean-born Abdominal Transplant Surgeon Praise Matemavi has challenged African teenage mothers “never to lose hope in life, but to work hard to realise their dreams”.
With an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 18 that threatened to derail her dream of one day becoming a surgeon, Dr Matemavi never gave up.
“It was devastating, I became pregnant when I was 18 out of wedlock and ended up getting married” she told newsmen.
“First of all, I thought I committed this huge sin and God was never going to bless me. I didn’t know how I was going to ever fulfil my dream. It was sad because that was the one time I saw my dad cry. I got married because I thought that it was the best thing to do.”
Being involved in an unplanned marriage, Matemavi ended up enduring physical, mental and emotional abuse.
“I went through so much heartache and pain, and that’s what probably helped fuel my drive. I was at a very low point in my life as a teenage mother with two kids and a survivor of abuse. I ended up divorced at the age of 23, with four-year-old and two-year-old children. However, my dream of becoming a doctor was always alive,” she said.
With the teenage pregnancy setback standing in her way, Matemavi believed everything would work out as her natural instinct was to correct the mistake she had made.
Though she had every reason to give up, failure was not an option. As a single mother of two, she put herself through medical school and was the only woman in her residency class. She fought her way to the top in a male-dominated field despite hearing discouraging comments like, “Girls don’t belong in an operating room,” from some attending physicians.
Where the dream began
When she was 10, a group of cardiac surgeons travelled to Zimbabwe from Loma Linda University in California, USA to perform congenital heart surgeries on children at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare. Matemavi heard about it from her father, who knew someone whose child had heart disease.
“I knew I wanted to be a doctor since I was four years old, since I knew what a doctor does. Then, when I discovered what surgeons do, I was very sure that it was the profession that I want to be involved in.”
Realising her interest in medicine, her father bought her a copy of “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story” by Dr. Ben Carson. Matemavi was in Grade 5 and finished reading the book in one night.
She wanted to be just like Carson, but instead of the brain, she wanted to operate on the heart.
When she was 14, Matemavi’s family moved to Michigan, United States of America, partly for her to have a greater opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming a surgeon.
Matemavi always excelled in her academics and firmly believed the sky was the limit. She completed a two-year nursing programme and began working as a nurse.
“I always believed in myself. I always believed I could do anything I wanted to do. There was never a doubt in my mind that I could do anything. I worked hard in school and continued my studies with the help and support of my family and completed my nursing studies. I then followed by enrolling at a medical school.
“I enjoyed medical school even though it was challenging. I enjoyed learning about the human body and how it functions. I discovered my true passion for surgery during medical school. At the end of my schooling I matched into my #1 residency for general surgery. Surgical residency was difficult, the long hours, the complexity of specialty training, working with some bosses who were not supportive of women. It was hard, but I knew I was called to be a surgeon and I preserved,” she added.
Upon completing her general surgery residency she moved on to do her multi-visceral transplant and hepatobiliary surgery fellowship in Nebraska.
“I am very privileged and blessed to do what I do. I have an amazing career. It is challenging, but I find satisfaction in seeing my patients doing well and going to live normal lives. Unfortunately with medicine at times things don’t turn out the way you want them to, people die and in my field, I see death most frequently than all other specialties. But I find life in death. I find hope in patients and their families that choose to be organ donors and to give the ultimate gift of life when their time here on earth is done.”
Despite having every excuse to give up on her dream, Matemavi has persevered and refused to let anything stand in her way. Her path to becoming a surgeon has not been the typical route, but her drive has led her to the top.
“To the young teenage mother, you are not damaged goods. God loves you as you are. Have a plan for your life and work hard to achieve your goals not only for you but for your child. Build a support system around you. We need each other to succeed. I always say it took a village to make Zimbabwe’s first abdominal transplant and hepatobiliary trained surgeon,” she said.