By VIWE NDONGENI, IOL, 11/03/2017
At only 32 years of age, she is the youngest black female cardiologist in the country and an entrepreneur who is determined to make a mark in her field.
Viwe Mtwesi, who currently works as a cardiology fellow at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Joburg, has already made a name for herself. She was chosen as part of the medical team that treated Nelson Mandela during his last days.
This saw her and other medics honoured by President Jacob Zuma with a Mandela Medallion Gold Medal. Two years ago Zuma awarded medals to people who looked after Mandela when he was ill and all the soldiers who worked during the period leading to his memorial service in 2013.
Last week the ambitious Mtwesi, who also owns a medical tourism company, Rega, graduated from Wits College of Medicine after passing the medical board exams that will see her formally qualifying as a specialist in cardiology.
The journey to where she is has not been easy, yet she is not daunted by what lies ahead of her.
We caught up with the bubbly and passionate public sector doctor to find out more about her choice of career and to get to know her better.
Who is Viwe, and where are you in terms of your career?
I grew up in a small rural village called Mpindweni in Mount Frere, Eastern Cape. After matric I studied medicine at the University of Transkei (now known as Walter Sisulu University). I specialise in cardiology and will finish my training in December.
Thereafter I plan to go overseas to further my training – to focus on electrophysiology and my PhD. I am grateful for this opportunity to further my studies through a private sponsorship which is for two-and-a-half years. I thank God, whom I love the most.
But the other thing about me is that I am encouraged by and admire young people who are determined to succeed in life and in business.
As the youngest black female cardiologist, how do you feel and how has this changed your life?
I’m very grateful. I’ve had good mentors and great support from people who are highly regarded in this field, and who have been willing to hold my hand. There are many but they include academics such as Dr Ferander Peters, who is a cardiologist, and Professor Colin Menezes.
There was a time when I was overwhelmed and thought the industry did not accommodate females, but with their advice and encouragement I kept going.
My life hasn’t really changed. I still do what I used to – but I’m looking forward to the next phase of my life. I want people to see that it is possible to achieve what you set your sights on. As a black person, I hope I will motivate others to see that they too are capable.
You were one of the medical team that cared for former president Nelson Mandela. How was that experience and what was your role?
I was one of the doctors taking care of him. That experience really helped me believe in myself. And the fact that I was chosen to be part of the team by professors also showed me that they believed in me and my capabilities.
Of course, it was a big honour because they could have chosen someone else. I was humbled by getting an opportunity to care for a highly regarded world icon, who also made it possible for me as a black person to take my position in society with pride.
It was the most fulfilling moment, but it also made me realise that every person matters – I treat everyone with dignity and respect.
How did you feel about being honoured by President Zuma?
I didn’t expect it Nelson Mandela was a great man and it was an honour to serve him. To be given something in return was just a plus and cherry on top. It was one of the moments where I felt like I was honoured for just doing what I love the most.
How are you treated in the industry as a young black female cardiologist?
It’s not easy, just like any male-dominated speciality it’s hard, very very hard. But when I joined there were two other females, so we used to support each other every time we felt left out.
But as a woman, you have to work extra hard to prove your capabilities. The environment forces you to be like men to survive which is really sad.
Have you always wanted to be a doctor, and why?
No, it just happened by accident. I didn’t get accepted into mining engineering and accounting. So I went to Unitra. Medicine was known as the best faculty at that university at the time.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
I know who I am, so when I go through trials and tests I don’t focus on them. I focus on the event after the storm so, in short, my identity in Christ keeps me grounded and focused.
It’s in the genetics of a doctor to strive to be better so I capitalise on what I’m good at. I’m passionate about electrophysiology so I will capitalise on that and that keeps me going.
You have a medical tourism company – how does it work?
The name of the company is Rega Medical Tourism. People contact me and tell me what they have been diagnosed with and I link them up with the right facility for treatment, specialists, doctors and accommodation.
You recently graduated after passing your board exams at Wits?
I’m happy that this chapter of my life has ended but extremely excited with the new adventure. Super specialist in cardiology is quite a cool title to have, hey!
How do you juggle between your medical career and personal life?
I plan my life in such a way that I know what I’ll be doing next month already, so everything goes smoothly. But obviously my social life does suffer a bit. I can’t just go to social events such as parties and weddings because of my busy schedule. Most of my friends know that they have to call me two months before the occasion.
Most times I have to send apologies, which really strains most of my relationships.
How is your typical workday?
It really depends if I am on call or not. If I am on call for the week, then my day doesn’t start or end. I end my day when I feel exhausted. I can typically get to the hospital around 6am and leave at 11pm, depending on how hectic my call is.
But if I am not on call I get to the hospital at 8am and leave around 2pm as I don’t take lunch and tea breaks.
What do you do to minimise stress from your busy life?
I go to the gym in the mornings before I go to work. I also regularly visit relatives, and I take my dogs for walks. My little puppies make me so happy. I also love dining, travelling and spending time with friends it’s a great way to relieve stress.
Any parting words?
We can have the biggest titles, be the biggest thing after chewing gum, but when we don’t have God we will always live empty lives that’s my opinion!
There is also nothing females cannot do, gender has nothing to do with our capability.
You don’t need a high IQ or brains – all you need is hard work and determination. I was not the sharpest tool in the toolbox, but I made it. Stick to what you are good at, and not what you desire to be.