Zimbabwean born Tafadzwa Mandiwanza makes history as Ireland’s first female paediatric neurosurgeon

Women are stepping up to the challenge, taking their place and changing the narrative in male dominated fields and yes, we love to see it!

Tafadzwa Mandiwanza was recently appointed Ireland’s first female paediatric neurosurgeon.

“I’ve read that imposter syndrome is no longer a thing, but I have to remind myself on a daily basis that I am a neurosurgeon.” The history-maker says.

“Paediatric neurosurgery includes the evaluation, diagnosis, operative and non-operative treatment, critical care, and rehabilitation of children with disorders of the nervous system” as defined by Top Doctors.

Tafadzwa Mandiwanza who works at Temple St. Hospital grew up in Harare the capital city of Zimbabwe
and has since childhood nursed the ambition of becoming a doctor.

“My mum is a nurse and my dad remembers me telling him when I was three years old that I was going to be a doctor,” says Mandiwanza, as we sit chatting in the board room of Temple St Children’s University Hospital about her experiences of being a brain surgeon. “My parents fostered that ambition.”

Although she had at first set out to be a cardiothoracic ( a medical doctor who specializes in surgical procedures of the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest) during her medical studies at University College Cork, her surgical training at Cork University Hospital where she completed a subdural haematoma (a procedure carried out on the thickest part of the clot to remove blood from the brain to relieve pressure), made her change her mind.

“I was 25 and I had to drill holes into the skull to open the lining (dura) of the brain to let out fluid which lessens the pressure. The procedure took less than one hour, but I was amazed that I could do it even if the registrar was scrubbed up next to me the whole time.”

According to Mandiwanza who loves being in the operating theatre, every surgeon is a perfectionist. “You can just focus on one thing. Every surgeon is a perfectionist. You have to be slightly obsessive, but most of us are critical of ourselves as well,” she says

Explaining more about her profession in a chat with Irish Times, she says before any procedure being carried out, she replays the expected turnout over and over in her head so that she has the mental space to deal with the unexpected.

“I remember watching a surgeon in Cork and saying afterwards how [the procedure] was flawless and beautifully done and he said to me that he had done that operation nine times already (in his head) on that particular patient.”

She laughs when she says that as a person, she loves order. “If things are disordered, my thought processes don’t work as well. My family tease me about how I like everything to be tidy in the house.”

Mandiwanza talking about her experience in theatre says likes working with children and feels great empathy for families. “We see children with devastating injuries and horrible traumas, but children are very resilient and they have a much greater capacity to recover and bounce back than adults do.”

“It’s hard as a parent to be responsible for someone else’s child yet I feel I can be more empathic because I am a parent too. I give parents the time to process what is happening and talk through the operation and its risks and complications.”

She recalls a very sad case when she was a registrar in which a two-year-old child died following a malignant brain tumour. “I remember crying privately. Children scare a lot of neurosurgeons because it’s very high stakes. People ask how can you go home and look at your children after a day’s work? But I compartmentalise. It’s a survival mechanism. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be able to function at home with my children.”

Among physicians all over the world, female surgeons are still rare today – she and Catherine Moran, an adult neurosurgeon at Beaumont Hospital – are the only two in Ireland the site reports.

Mandiwanza recalling her journey says that she hasn’t felt discriminated against as a female consultant. “I’ve not had anyone say I don’t want her to operate on me, but when I was a registrar working with a male senior house officer (a more junior position), I do remember times when patients asked him questions and I had to reply, I’m the one operating on you.”

As a trainee, she says she felt there was a boy’s network, but as a consultant, she feels an equal part of the team. “There are only four paediatric neurosurgeons, seven nurse specialists, and one coordinator in Temple St. I love everyone here. It’s like a family, but we will all move to the new children’s hospital so (I expect) it will be like a big blended family when we get there.”

Looking back she says the busiest and toughest time was when she worked in Cork University Hospital for two years during her six years higher surgical training while her three children were young. She also completed extra training at Great Ormond St Children’s Hospital in London just before taking up her consultant post in Dublin so that she could bring new skills (such as surgery to treat severe spasticity in cerebral palsy) back to Dublin. “I was determined and organised, but a support network was essential. My sister-in-law moved to Ireland. We had au pairs and my husband, Rebabonye Pharithi, was working in Dublin at the time.”

Together with her family, Tafadzwa Mandiwanza has been living in Ireland now for 20 years: “Our children were all born here and they consider themselves Irish. My husband – who is from Botswana – and I were both naturalised in 2014.

Reflecting on her journey to become Ireland’s first female paediatric neuro-surgeon, Mandiwanza says, “I don’t think I’d be in this position if I hadn’t had the mentors that I had – people who had my back and offered me advice and encouragement. I’d like to be available now to mentor other neuro-surgeons – particularly women coming through those long training pathways.”

Are female surgeons different from their male counterparts? “We’re definitely more empathic and a bit less God-like. All surgeons have a certain amount of ego and you have to but female surgeons are more self-effacing. I’ve read that imposter syndrome is no longer a thing, but I have to remind myself on a daily basis that I am a neurosurgeon.”

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