Overcoming the odds – the incredible journey of Discovery’s first MGH Fellow


Having been exposed to the high standard of research and care at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, trailblazing Discovery Fellow Dr Neliswa Gogela is determined to apply her learnings. She also wants to teach others to combine clinical practice with kindness and care.

Hepatologist, Dr Neliswa Gogela, published more papers in a single year of training at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) than in her entire career until then. Her family stayed with her in Massachusetts and her training was fully funded on a pioneering MGH Discovery Fellowship. During this single year, she helped transplant 50 livers. This is 10 times as many as she would have done in a year at Groote Schuur Hospital.

Dr Gogela has since graduated with her MPhil in Advanced Hepatology and Transplant and works as a hepatologist at the UCT Private Academic Hospital. Her next step is securing her PhD in liver disease. This will further boost local knowledge, especially of fatty liver disease, one of the most serious among South Africa’s burgeoning epidemic of lifestyle diseases.

“It’s all about raising awareness”

“Right now, we don’t have treatment for fatty liver disease. We don’t understand the true mechanism behind it,” Dr Gogela explains. “Why, for example, are certain ethnic groups more predisposed?” Patient advocacy is also a particular concern for Dr Gogela. She says patients’ lack of knowledge about their conditions can have potentially devastating effects. “If you have Hepatitis B, your partner and any sexual contacts needs to be vaccinated. Children need the vaccine because they are generally asymptomatic. By the time they present with symptoms, it’s often too late. So, it’s all about raising awareness and catching the disease early,” she adds.

“We can do this”

Dr Gogela’s philosophy on life is one emulated across the country by a cadre of vocation-driven, hugely committed colleagues. It’s one that’s seen her overcome major challenges growing up in a poor rural area of the Eastern Cape.

Asked what she thinks South Africans need to do to create the change they want to see, she responds: “I think it starts with believing we can make a change, because if we don’t think that we’re capable, we’re not going to do it. Yes, we have our limitations in the healthcare sector, but we mustn’t dwell on those. Rather look at how we can use the resources we have to improve our conditions.”

Reflecting a sentiment that’s often repeated among local researchers, she adds: “I think we should stop relying on the developed world’s information and their assumptions about what affects us. Let the world hear from us rather than making conclusions about us. I didn’t believe it before Discovery gave me the opportunity, but I thought to myself: ‘We can do this – we just need more manpower!’”

From township to Cape Town – taking initiative and not giving up

Her shy, humble demeanour conceals the passion and tenacity it took for her to begin her academic journey. To achieve the matric results that she knew would one day help her become a doctor, Dr Gogela studied by the light of a small lamp late into the night. Her grandmother even chided her for using too much precious paraffin and instilled a fierce discipline in her by insisting she get home immediately from school to start studying.

With her maths, science and biology high school teachers having “washed their hands of us”, she learned to teach herself, with the help of some of the more dedicated school staff who recognised her efforts. Dr Gogela graduated cum laude from Medunsa in 2002, later marrying and having two sons while securing further degrees.

“I wanted the impossible, but my Dean and Discovery made it happen”

When she started working as a registrar at Groote Schuur in 2005, she told the Dean of Medicine that she wanted to be a liver specialist. “He said, ‘You know hepatology is not even registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa!’ And I said there are so many people with liver conditions and (then) just two people to carry that burden across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.”

“He could see that I knew exactly what I wanted, and so he made plans to make it happen. I wanted the impossible – a sub-speciality that was not registered, with no government-funded post available – but he and Discovery made it happen. Discovery helped me train at UCT for a full three years under the two hepatologists and then I managed to get to Massachusetts General Hospital – which I count as the best year of my career,” she says.

“Pull out all the stops to make sure patients return to their families”

She describes her clinical research and children as her two great loves, and counts honesty and kindness as her two most important values. “Caring for sick people and not looking at them as diseases, but as individuals with families, someone’s mother, aunt, a breadwinner ... You pull out all the stops to make sure they return to their families,” she says.

She sees her future role as educating as many young doctors as possible, and her gentle bedside manner and hands-on teaching approach have evoked deep affection for her among medical students. “The patient has a name, a family, and if you look after that, then it becomes easier to go the extra mile. Find out who they are and then get on with the examination and investigations,” she tells them.

It’s advice that today makes her advanced knowledge so much more effective.

Read more about how Discovery Fellows are bringing cutting-edge medicine to SA shores.

About the Discovery Foundation

Each year, the Discovery Foundation gives five different awards to outstanding individual and institutional awardees in the public healthcare sector.

The Discovery Foundation is an independent trust with a clear focus to strengthen the healthcare system by making sure that more people have access to specialised healthcare services.

Since 2006, the Discovery Foundation has invested more than R230 million in training and support for more than 400 medical specialists and institutions. The grants support academic research and clinical science, sub-specialist training, rural medicine as well as programmes to develop public healthcare resources. For 2019, Discovery Foundation awarded 42 grants to medical specialists working in South Africa’s healthcare sector to the value of R27 million.

Learn more and apply for the 2020 Discovery Foundation Awards.

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