Four years ago Dr Neliswa Gogela became South Africa’s first recipient of a R2-million Discovery Foundation Awards grant to study liver transplantation at one of the world’s top clinical research hospitals.
Today, the liver specialist has a permanent post at Groote Schuur Hospital involved in hands-on clinical medicine and in “nurturing and influencing young medical minds”. The only dedicated hepatology unit is at Groote Schuur.
The Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Fellowship Award in the United States saw Dr Gogela participate in around 50 liver transplants. She was also involved in various clinical research projects. And in just one year abroad, she managed to publish more papers than she had in her entire career.
“I was one of the first clinicians to work using the Fibroscan – an ultrasound machine that non-invasively assesses the degree of damage to a liver and provides results within few minutes,” said Dr Gogela.
“I brought new techniques in transplantation and treating liver diseases back to South Africa.”
Once the fellowship is complete, doctors return to South Africa and give back through teaching and research in the state healthcare sector, for at least two years.
“I brought new techniques in transplantation and treating liver diseases back to South Africa where there is such a great need, and where we have only four state hepatologists,” said Dr Gogela, who battled an inferior education to realise her dream of becoming a doctor.
She was forced to study by the light of a small paraffin lamp in the tiny shack she shared with her grandmother, Manyawuza Gogela, in a small village near Peddie in the Eastern Cape. True to her nature, Dr Gogela finished high school and went on to graduate cum laude in 2002 from the University of Limpopo (Medunsa), with a medical degree. In 2012, she joined the Division of Hepatology, Liver Research Centre at Groote Schuur Hospital.
“Being awarded the Discovery Foundation grant was a dream come true,” says the mother of two sons. The boys, age 12 and 5, accompanied her to the USA in 2014.
“MGH is one of the best medical institutions in the world and 2014 was easily the best year of my life. I grew so much confidence in my clinical abilities and created lasting academic friendships,” said Dr Gogela.
“Most exciting was an opportunity to publish a review article reflecting on and looking at the future of Hepatitis-C treatment. The opportunity given to me through the Discovery Foundation to spend a year at MGH has forged my path for years to come,” she said.
“Being awarded the Discovery Foundation grant was a dream come true.”
With an annual research budget of more than $750 million, MGH conducts the largest hospital-based research programme in the US spanning more than 20 clinical departments and centres. It performs more than 38 000 operations a year.
“South Africa has a serious shortage of hepatologists trained in transplantation and the burden of liver disease, and the complexity of available treatments have increased significantly,” said Dr Raymond Chung, professor of medicine and director of hepatology at MGH.
“One of the main goals of the Discovery Foundation’s Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Fellowship Award is to enhance and enrich the training of promising young physicians and researchers so that they can take that knowledge and those skills back to their own institutions,” he said.
Dr Gogela takes her patients’ perspectives very seriously. “Patients who have chronic medical problems deal with life’s challenges in a way that teaches us to remain strong in the face of adversity,” she said. “The relationship and connection you create with your patients is amazing. You cry, you laugh, you smile, you fall and rise together.”
“I would like to believe that I give both my work and my children my best.”
Gogela’s advice to others facing the same educational and financial challenges she faced is: “Just work hard. Hard work pays off and doors will open, you just must keep knocking and believe. I see a world full of wonderful, strong, beautiful, multi-talented and self-sufficient men and women who can achieve all they set out to.”
Gogela is certainly one of them. This passionate woman is looking forward to another milestone this year. “I am turning 40! They say life begins at 40 and I can’t wait for another beautiful beginning.”
How does she manage it all? “Sometimes I fail, especially at being a mom. I am doing it solo. My friends and family are my greatest supporters.
“I would like to believe that I give both my work and my children my best. I love my boys fiercely and by working hard I wish to inspire them to know that hard work pays off. Certainly, it has for me.”
The Discovery Foundation has so far supported the training of 300 new medical professionals working in South Africa’s public healthcare system. The awards are allocated annually by the Discovery Foundation and offer financial support to talented academics and clinicians to allow them further training, research and development in their field. For further information visit https://www.discovery.co.za/portal/individual/corporate-discovery-foundation.