Dr Sumy Thomas: deciphering the human puzzle from the inside out


The recipient of the prestigious Discovery Foundation MGH Fellowship Award for 2020, Dr Sumy Thomas, will travel to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, US, where she’ll explore how HIV and antiretroviral medicine affect the endocrine system.

Video: Dr Sumy Thomas on being a person with purpose

“I grew up in the Transkei. My parents taught biology and physical science at rural schools where the only meal the children received for the day was at school, and many came to school hungry. Education levels were low, and English was the medium of instruction, even though it was not the pupils’ first language,” says Dr Teressa Sumy Thomas.

Nevertheless, teachers and doctors emerged from those schools. So quite early on I was exposed to how difficult life can be for people starting out in South Africa, but how education can provide an equal opportunity.”

As the 2020 recipient of the prestigious Discovery Foundation MGH Fellowship Award, Dr Thomas will spend a year-long medical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, US, once travel restrictions are lifted. MGH is a clinical service and biomedical research facility and the largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The 33-year-old will receive supervision from leading experts and gain exposure to the hospital’s research environment.

Dr Thomas saw the effects of HIV and AIDS from a young age

Dr Thomas, whose family moved to Kokstad, KwaZulu-Natal, studied at a boarding school in Pietermaritzburg. “Being exposed to life in the Eastern Cape, where my parents taught for a decade, I saw the effects of HIV and AIDS and I knew my broader aim was to serve the greater South African community,” the soft-spoken doctor says.

After completing her medical degree at Wits University, Dr Thomas did her practical training at the rural Ngwelezana Hospital near Pietermaritzburg, where she worked in emergency medicine. But her recent specialisation, completed at Wits, was in internal medicine.

“I wanted to work closely with patients, to figure out the puzzle of medicine by using clinical clues. When we put these clues together, we can really help people with complicated conditions,” she says.

Exploring the effects of HIV and antiretroviral medicine

One such puzzle Dr Thomas hopes to piece together is: how does HIV and antiretroviral (ARV) medicine affect the body? She will be placed at the Metabolism Unit in the Endocrinology Division at Massachusetts General Hospital where she’ll explore how HIV and ARV medicine affect the endocrine system.

The endocrine system contains the glands and organs that produce hormones that control many functions in the body, including metabolism, growth and development, and reproduction.

“This will address a need in the population of South Africa,” she says. “We have an estimated 7.7 million people living with HIV. While ARVs have helped give longevity to patients in the past decade, we are now seeing a larger number of patients at risk of cardiometabolic disease, including dysglycaemia (elevated glucose or blood sugar levels) and fatty liver disease which could be a result of the virus itself or from ARV therapy. This area needs to be explored further.”

Bringing it back home to South Africa

As an endocrinologist, a much-needed speciality in the country, Dr Thomas will be able to support patients in the public sector. “I can bring this knowledge back to South Africa to enhance the care of patients with new information acquired and to continue research in this field. By being attuned to the needs of our population, I hope to generate relevant research and be involved in the training of specialists in years to come.”

The Discovery Foundation MGH Fellowship Award was first introduced in 2013, and the specialist doctors come back to South Africa to implement the knowledge they have gained.

“Sumy is an exceptional physician” – Prof Frederick Raal

It was her supervisor who encouraged her to apply for the fellowship. Professor Frederick Raal, Director of the Carbohydrate and Lipid Metabolism Research Unit at Wits University, says he is delighted about her appointment and that the experience from the US will not only benefit her, but will also enhance the field of endocrinology and ultimately the health of the South African population.

“Sumy is an exceptional physician. She is hardworking, diligent and committed. The study will be of great benefit when she returns to South Africa, as we are at the epicentre of the HIV pandemic,” he says.

MGH Fellowship unparalleled in the medical field

Dr Thomas adds that the fellowship opportunity is unparalleled in the medical field. “I realised that there was a knowledge gap, and it just so happened that Professor Steven Grinspoon, my Boston supervisor, was an organic fit.”

“The clinical component of the fellowship gives me access to observing super-specialist clinics that I may not have been exposed to, but which will be most impactful in South Africa,” she says.

“Seeing medicine in a different setting will be life-changing”

“I think it’s amazing that this award is accessible to all doctors, especially young doctors. It can take you into world medicine and opens an opportunity for people who have a vision and want to bring it back to the country. Without it, we would have limited access to working in a world-class research facility like Massachusetts General Hospital.”

“And, as a lived experience, working abroad and seeing medicine in a different setting will be life-changing. My family is so excited and proud,” she says. “My sister is a surgeon in Chicago, and my parents, who are now retired, are happy to see their two young daughters contributing to science and working in academic medicine.”

About the Discovery Foundation

Since 2006, the Discovery Foundation has invested over R256 million in grants to support academic medicine through research, development and training medical specialists in South Africa.

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

Learn more about the Discovery Foundation Awards

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