Dr Ncumisa Jilata is one of Africa’s youngest neurosurgeons
Neurosurgeon Dr Ncumisa Jilata relishes the challenges that every new day offers, to help
people on their paths to recovery.
At 29 Dr Ncumisa Jilata is one of Africa's youngest neurosurgeons. Jilata, who is based at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, decided on her unusual career because she saw a huge need for such skills in South Africa. “The trauma burden and the disease profile in South Africa is vast, and the ratio of neurosurgeon to patient is still quite scanty.”
She also relished the challenge: “Of course this is a challenging field and served as the perfect platform to exercise [all my] intellectual capabilities.”
Neurosurgeons investigate, diagnose and treat medical and surgical neurological structural abnormalities in the central nervous system, she explains.The central nervous system involves the brain, spinal cord and the peripheral nerves.
“We are also passionately involved in the rehabilitation process of these patients, which involves a multidisciplinary team effort.”
She qualified as a specialist in May this year. “It's a lot of responsibility but it is equally exciting to have qualified,” Jilata says, adding that she feels very privileged to have been able to qualify as the youngest neurosurgeon.
Jilata grew up in Southridge Park, Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape.
The young specialist talks of the additional challenges of being a woman in a field where surgeons have traditionally been male. “One needs a thick skin to break through such barriers and show the public that it is normal in 2017 to have a neurosurgeon who is equally competent as [her] male counterparts.”
As she discusses her belief that every patient deserves dignity and care, her passion for and pride in what she does is obvious. Jilata believes this type of care impacts positively on her patients' recovery the impact is usually recognisable when patients return to the outpatients clinic and express their gratitude.
Nothing typical about a day in neurology
There is no such thing as a typical day at work, Jilata says, because every day is filled with different adventures. “We have a huge
spectrum of pathologies and the day is divided between reviewing the intensive care patient unit, which is where the postoperative patients who still need monitoring [are nursed], and the severe traumatic head injuries.”
The allocation of patients as well as the assignment of teaching the registrars and students is done in conjunction with the head of department.
A ward round is followed by a schedule of operations, “where the surgeons operate on the elective patients”.
The most common conditions Jilata comes across in her work are mostly tumours in the cranial cavity or in the spinal canal.
“We also see a lot of vascular abnormalities [the vessels that carry the blood around the body]. These include patients who have had strokes that are responsive to surgical intervention; some may have bled while others may have had vascular compromise.”
Some of the tumours have a genetic cause, while some of the strokes are related to the lifestyle of the patient, she notes.
Preventing brain injuries
The one neurological condition that can be prevented is traumatic brain injury, Jilata says. “The most common causes of this are motor vehicle accidents, pedestrian vehicle accidents and assault.”
She believes more attention should be drawn to this as such injuries are an important health concern and contribute to the country's health budget. “Awareness campaigns about road safety are definitely a great way to decrease the incidence of traumatic head injuries.”
Non-trauma conditions, on the other hand, are “a bit trickier, as one is usually not aware of the presence of the disease process until it presents itself clinically.”
She advises people to be vigilant and aware of tell-tale signs like sudden headaches or headaches getting worse over time, changes in vision, or vomiting, along with any neurological changes like seizures or weakness of any limbs.
If any of these signs are present, her advice is to seek medical attention immediately.
Impact of neurosurgery to the economy
Neurosurgery has a positive impact on the economy, and on the country, says Jilata.
Neurosurgical conditions can be congenital or degenerative and affect people regardless of age or gender. “If these conditions are left untreated, the results are usually debilitating. This of course would impact on the economic productivity of the country.”
Young people interested in a career in neurosurgery should work hard at getting into medical school, she says. “There are eight medical schools in the country and any of them is fine.”
As of August 2017 there were 219 neurosurgeon registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa.
To become a neurosurgeon, young people have to first complete an undergraduate degree which qualifies them to practice as a doctor.
“Thereafter, one must complete a year of community service. This is followed by medical officer time and registrar time, which is the time in training to become a specialist.”
She suggests writing the primary exams in surgery and applying for a post at a teaching hospital. “Where there is a will there will always be an opportunity.”
Steve Biko Hospital is one of a kind
Jilata loves being part of the Steve Biko Hospital family because it's one-of-a-kind. “The management of the hospital epitomises the principles that Steve Biko himself would approve of.”
She adds: “This is the only hospital I have worked in where the patient care department is really involved and does everything possible to put the patients first despite limited resources.
“This is a great teaching hospital and I am proud to have trained here.”
Among her plans, Jilata wants to specialise further in interventional neuroradiology, an interesting and delicate specialty that focuses on the vascular architecture of the central nervous system.