This year, the FHMS welcomes four exceptional students into the 2020 intake of medical students. They are David Obagbuwa, who is 15 years old and turns 16 in March; Siyamthanda Mtyeku, who achieved seven distinctions in matric despite living in a shack he shared with four other people; Elliot Nogo, who has been working as a nurse in rural Eastern Cape; and Sechaba Maleka, who already has a PhD in Nuclear Medicine (Radiobiology).
All four students have dreamt of studying medicine from an early age, and each one of them said their admission to Stellenbosch University is a dream come true.
Asked how it feels to be studying medicine at 15, David said it was “wonderful" and that he intends to graduate at 21. “Hopefully that will be a record. I am happy to own that!"
David, who is from Lagos, Nigeria, moved to South Africa with his family when he was 11. He attended the Kharwastan Secondary School and went into grade nine when he was 11.
“There was a misunderstanding with the grades. My parents knew I'd done one year of high school so they put me in the second year of high school here, but I should have been in grade eight. I coped with the work and the school allowed me to stay where I was. The teachers were excellent – friendly, interactive and helpful."
He said he's completely accustomed to “hanging around with people three to four years older than me" - and that he feels completely welcome at Stellenbosch. His family, still in Durban, miss him very much and call every day, he added.
“I put all my efforts into my matric exams because I wanted to come to Stellenbosch as they have an astounding medical history."
Asked about his long-term plans, David said he hopes to become a surgeon. “I am still deciding between cardiothoracic surgery or neurosurgery.
“My family always reminds me that I've always wanted to help people. In the long-term I want to do it on a larger scale. I want to save lives, make people happy and put smiles on their faces. This is a way to do it – and it will make me happy too."
David said his role model as a youngster was the famous US neurosurgeon Ben Carson. “I watched a movie about him and read his books. He came from a poor background and worked his way up. That inspired me."
Siyamthanda, who got an 85 percent average for matric and was the top matric pupil at Sinenjongo High School, said he was delighted to be in his first year of medicine at Stellenbosch. “It hasn't sunk in yet," he said. “It's an amazing, indescribable feeling to know that I have made it this far. It's the start of a whole new journey."
Siyamthanda's parents live in East London. His father is a pensioner and his mother is the breadwinner. He lived with his late brother's widow in the Marikana informal settlement, near Jo Slovo, outside Milnerton in a shack situated close to a tavern.
He faced severe financial challenges – with a meal from the school feeding scheme as his only meal on some days.
Siyamthanda said he always wanted to be a doctor and has, from an early age, been drawn towards helping others. “In grade three, when my teacher asked what I wanted to be I said a doctor. I've always stuck with that!
“I was also inspired by my mother, who has worked as a nurse in East London for nearly twenty years. I grew up in a hospital environment. My mother taught me, at a young age, which medicines should be taken for different illnesses. We never went to the doctor as children."
Asked how he managed to do so well despite his challenging circumstances, he said: “I did it the old-fashioned way – through hard work. I pushed myself. I worked out study methods. I also asked my school principal to allow me stay after hours at school so that I could have a quiet place to study. I studied individually and also worked with my peers in a study group. It also helped me to teach others."
Siyamthanda's goals for the future include, in the short term, to do well academically and to engage in student affairs.
In the long term, he hopes to graduate and specialise in neurology and to go on to do surgery.
“I would also like to become involved in medical research as well as the development of vaccines. I want to be a high-profile recognisable doctor who makes a contribution in medicine worldwide."
Elliot Nogo, (28), was working at the deeply rural Zithulele Hospital in the Eastern Cape as a professional nurse before being accepted by the FHMS.
He grew up in the rural Eastern Cape village of Ncwanguba. After finishing school, he was awarded an Umthombo Youth Development bursary to study nursing. He completed a Bachelor of Nursing degree at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. He worked as a nurse at the Barkley East Hospital and then moved to the Zithulele Hospital in 2018.
His clinical manager at Zithulele Hospital, Dr Benjamin Gaunt described Elliot as a hard-working, tenacious young man who did vacation work at the hospital during his nursing training and always wanted to be a doctor.
“I wanted to cry when I heard I had been accepted," he said. “I had been praying about this. I am very excited."
On his future goals, he said he plans to study neurosurgery: “I would love to take my skills back to Zithulele.
“The brain is the most interesting organ in the body. If there is no brain, nothing works. I saw many brain-related cases in my hospital – such as seizures and traumatic brain injuries. We don't have many neurosurgeons in the Eastern Cape. It was hard to tell families we could not do anything to help their loved one."
“I want to go home and give those people the treatment they know, in the language (Xhosa) they understand best."
Elliot added that he has witnessed first-hand the desperate need for doctors in rural areas.
“In Barkley East, sometimes there was snow and no network coverage – and no doctors.
“I can see the need for doctors who come from rural areas themselves … they speak the same language, but they also understand the people they are treating on a deeper level – what words to use to explain a disease, what common beliefs about the illness the community may have and in what circumstances they will be taking their treatment.
“It is my dream to better serve the rural communities that have been my home."
Sechaba Maleka, 30, already has a PhD in Nuclear Medicine (Radiobiology) which he completed through Stellenbosch University.
He said being a first-year medical student at Stellenbosch is “something I've wanted to do for the past ten years. I feel now that I've made it."
Sechaba, who grew up in Sharpeville and was raised by his grandmother developed a love for medicine when he used to take care of his grandmother.
After the death of his grandmother, he moved to live with his parents and attended Retief Hoërskool in Harrismith in the Free State. He was then awarded a bursary to study medicine at Stellenbosch University. “However, his matric results were a few points behind for him to be accepted into medicine, so he started off with a BSc instead. “Every year, since qualifying for my BSc, I have applied for medicine. I never lost that hope of getting in!"
Asked why he chose medicine as a career, he said: “The first reason is personal: I have lost members of my family to sudden short sicknesses. I've seen them pass away after one or two days. I've also seen people suffer because of medical negligence.
“I feel that a number of medical professionals have lost the heart for medicine and that it has become a money thing. I've heard many people say that they want to be a doctor because it pays good money and not because they have a genuine calling to the profession.
“My second reason is that, now that I have done my PhD and I see that in South Africa we lack clinician scientists, like the late Professor Bongani Mayosi. We need people who are prolific in the clinic but who, when they see a problem, they come back to the laboratory and write about it. We, as an African continent can and should write our solutions for African problems."
Sechaba's long-term goals include becoming a clinician scientist and “being part of African solutions" in solving the current medical or health problems that exist on the African continent.
“We need to look at all health problems in the context of poverty and the socioeconomic problems that surround us."
He said is long-term goal is to, on top of being a medical doctor, to remain involved in research, training and policy making in health issues.
Caption: Sechaba Maleka, Siyamthanda Mtyeku, David Obagbuwa and Elliot Nogo.
Photo credit: Wilma Stassen