Meet Dr Kanyepi: Zimbabwe’s only female cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Kudzai Kanyepi attending to one of her patients

Rumbidzai Zinyuke
Senior Health Reporter

Dr Kudzai Kanyepi stands tall as the only female cardiothoracic surgeon in Zimbabwe.

In a field where the only other four available surgeons are male, she has managed to prove her mettle as she provides the best care she can give at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals.

As the Women’s Month comes to an end, it would be prudent to celebrate Dr Kanyepi and the impact she has been making in improving the health service delivery, in line with Government’s vision for universal access to health for all.

After completing her undergraduate medical training at the University of Zimbabwe, Dr Kanyepi spent six years training to be a cardiothoracic surgeon in Durban, South Africa, under Zimbabwe’s Manpower Development Programme.

“It took me six years to specialise after undergraduate training,” she said. “But time goes by quickly when you are learning a new skill or when you are really involved in patient care. I never looked at time, because these years flew by.”

Upon completion of her studies, Dr Kanyepi became the 12th female in Africa to qualify in this field, four more have since qualified since then.

Among these, she was the fourth of African ethnicity (now there are seven).

While she could have continued to practice in South Africa or anywhere else in the world, she decided to come back home and serve the people who needed her most: Zimbabweans.

It has been six months since she returned home and according to her it has been a satisfying journey.

“Every time I meet someone who hears that l specialised in South Africa, they always ask me the question ‘why are you back?’. And I always tell them that when you practice a career such as being a doctor, there are three things that are important; the first one is professional growth, the second is personal growth and the third is service,” said Dr Kanyepi.

“You can serve anywhere outside the country and provide a service that will be thought of as great out there. But there is nothing more rewarding as serving your own people. So, l came back because l wanted to serve my own people.

“We only have five cardiothoracic surgeons in Zimbabwe, including myself, so the need is big. If we don’t come back and start serving our own people, we would be doing a great disservice to our people.”

Dr Kanyepi has changed the lives of many patients she has met at Parirenyatwa.

She says she has met patients who have made an impact on her life and reaffirmed her decision to come back.

“Yes, things may not be where we want them to be, but the only way we can get them to where we want, is if we continue to advocate for our patients and ourselves, because we at any point in time can become patients,” she said.

“As one mentor once said, ‘ndinorwara, ndinorwarirwa’, (I can get sick or a relative may get sick) so we must always realise that we can become patients and we need to always advocate for where we want things to be. My process in coming back is also for advocacy.”

Dr Kanyepi is not the only one who has come back home.

Other specialist doctors have been coming back to practice in Zimbabwe and this has given local institution the leverage to offer most services that were once not available.

With many patients seeking funds to travel to India and other countries for surgeries, Dr Kanyepi says she and her fellow cardiothoracic surgeons are available and more than capable of giving them the services they require.

She stressed that it was high time that Zimbabweans restore their faith in the local health systems as more doctors become available.

“The nice thing about capacity is that you learn to crawl, walk and then to run,” said Dr Kanyepi. “The Ministry of Health and Child Care supported my training in South Africa and this was all in an effort to build capacity so that we are able to treat our own patients locally.

“We now have manpower, we probably have more cardiac surgeons in Zimbabwe than some of our partners in the region, excluding South Africa. So we now have capacity at skills level, but we now need to continue to advocate to get us to the standard where we will be able now treat all our patients who are going to India.”

The local doctors are already treating various conditions such as children born with a problem in the heart called patent ductus arteriosus, an abnormal communication artery near the heart.

Dr Kanyepi said they did vascular work, repaired aneurysms (abnormally dilated arteries that can rupture) in the abdomen and limbs and also embolectomies, which is removal of blood clot from arteries so blood can flow again and save the limb.

“For thoracic surgery we do oesophagectomies; where we remove the oesophagus (the feeding tube) for cancer and other conditions,” she said. “We biopsy the lung and remove part of the lung in the presence of cancer.

“For cardiac, we do pericadiectomies, which is removal of the sac that encases the heart, we usually remove it when it is affected by TB and this stops the heart from working well.

“So, capacity is slowly scaling up so as we learn to walk and run, very soon you will hear that we have started doing these operations that are done in India, here in Zimbabwe.”

Some of the patients who received treatment from Dr Kanyepi expressed their renewed confidence in the local health delivery system

Tatenda Kanhondo (22), who suffered an injury which tore the artery in his right leg, said he was lucky to be alive because he had received attention quickly.

He said he went into surgery twice after he hurt his leg after his wound had become infected.

“I have received the best care while here and l cannot fault the service l am getting,” said Kanhondo. “I am thankful to the doctor for helping me to get here. I am still recovering, but they are giving me good care.

“I encourage people to come to hospitals if they have problems because they are guaranteed of getting the best treatment. The doctors here have helped me a lot.”

While Dr Kanyepi’s other patients are still recovering, many others have already recovered and gone home.

She expressed her hope that many other young women would take up careers in fields such as hers. But for this to happen, more girls will need to take up STEM subjects at school.

This year’s Women’s Month was celebrated under the theme “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” and called for everyone to embrace equity.

Dr Kanyepi has made an impact in the science and technology field, but more women are needed there.

She feels recruiting girls and women into STEM programmes was not enough.

“As much as we encourage girls to go into STEM subjects, we need to ensure that we get them the tools for them to succeed in these fields,” said Dr Kanyepi. “Not everyone is starting from the same place, so that is what embracing equity means.

“It means we must acknowledge that we are not starting at the same place so we need to give each other the right tools to succeed.”

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