Pediatric neurosurgery, according to Top Doctors, includes “the evaluation, diagnosis, operative and non-operative treatment, critical care and rehabilitation of children with disorders of the nervous system.”
The conditions pediatric neurosurgeons treat are usually different from the neurological problems adult or general neurosurgeons attend to.
Tafadzwa Mandiwanza knows that very well. The Zimbabwean-born woman recently made history when she was appointed as the first female pediatric neurosurgeon in Ireland. She works at Temple St Hospital, the only pediatric neurosurgery center in Ireland, according to Irish Times.
Growing up in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, Mandiwanza always wanted to be 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,” Mandiwanza told Irish Times while celebrating her recent feat.
She first thought she wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon while pursuing her medical studies at University College Cork. But completing a subdural haematoma — a procedure that removes blood from the brain to relieve pressure — during her surgical training at Cork University Hospital made her have second thoughts about being a cardiothoracic surgeon.
And today, she hasn’t regretted studying towards being a pediatric neurosurgeon. She however admitted that her profession is tough, considering the fact that neurosurgical problems in the pediatric age group are usually difficult and complex. Usually, children with nervous system problems demand more time and follow-up care throughout their childhood and adolescence.
Mandiwanza loves to be around to cater to those problems. She adores working with children and loves to be in the operating theater, she told Irish Times.
“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.”
Asked if female surgeons are different from their male counterparts, she said: “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.”
All over the world, women surgeons are a minority among physicians. They are working in a traditionally white, male-dominated field, with some even getting bullied, harassed and discriminated against by their male counterparts. In Ireland, just 10% of surgeons are female, according to the 2017 Progress report by RCSI’s Working Group on Gender Diversity. Mandiwanza and Catherine Moran, who is an adult neurosurgeon at Beaumont Hospital, are the only two female neurosurgeons in Ireland.
Despite a recent survey showing how many female neurosurgeons had experienced sexism at work, Mandiwanza said she has not gone through such an experience 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.”
Mandiwanza has been in Ireland for 20 years with her husband who is from Botswana. They were both naturalized in 2014 and their children were all born in Ireland. Before getting to where she is now, she worked in Cork University Hospital for two years during her higher surgical training. Her children were young then, so it was difficult, she said. She also completed extra training at Great Ormond St Children’s Hospital in London to enable her to bring new skills back to her work in Dublin, Ireland.
All in all, Mandiwanza acknowledged that she wouldn’t have become Ireland’s first female pediatric neuro-surgeon without a support network; people who had her back and offered her advice and encouragement. On the back of this, she would like to mentor other neurosurgeons, particularly women “coming through those long training pathways,” said Mandiwanza.