Paediatrician puts spotlight on kidney conditions in South African children


When Dr Nokukhanya Ngubane-Mwandla was in high school, she already knew she wanted to be a paediatrician. She found a way to turn this dream into a reality, and today she is sub-specialising to help save children with kidney conditions.

Dr Nokukhanya Ngubane-Mwandla was born in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal, on 24 December 1985. Her mother is a teacher and her father a chief magistrate. She studied medicine at the University of Pretoria and qualified as a doctor in 2009. Ten years later she completed her studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and became a paediatrician.

For her second MMed degree, she will be investigating the impact of chronic kidney disease on children attending the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital over the last five years. A teaching hospital for the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School, it is the third largest hospital in the world, with about 3 200 beds.

Acute shortage of paediatric nephrologists in South Africa

For the last few years, Dr Ngubane-Mwandla has been working as a specialist paediatric consultant at Sebokeng Regional Hospital in Vanderbijlpark. Her interest in nephrology became marked during the last stretch of her paediatric studies.

"There is an acute shortage of paediatric nephrologists in South Africa," Dr Ngubane-Mwandla says. "There is also a relatively high incidence of kidney problems among South African children. Some of these problems are congenital, which means that children are born with them, but several conditions are caused by malnourishment and gastric problems," she explains, adding that socio-economic issues in South Africa can contribute to these conditions.

An advocate for those who cannot fight for themselves

"I have always made it a personal mission to help and be an advocate for the vulnerable. Those who cannot fight for themselves: children," Dr Ngubane-Mwandla says. "It really adds to your life if you have a job that you enjoy."

She laughs when asked how she fits work, family and studying into a 24-hour day. "I go to sleep when the kids go to bed, and then I get up at four in the morning. That time of day I can study without interruptions." She says it takes true dedication in the winter and that her husband is incredibly supportive of her career.

When Dr Ngubane-Mwandla is not spending time with her husband and two sons, she enjoys reading and cycling. Besides being a Sunday school teacher, she also supports two outreach programmes: Doctors without Borders and SOS Children's Villages.

Bringing critical skills to South African health sector

"I was not expecting to receive this Discovery Foundation Award. My mentor and supervisor, Prof Karen Petersen, encouraged me to apply. I was astonished and thrilled to hear that my application had been successful," she adds.

The Discovery Foundation Sub-specialist Awards aim to contribute to human resources for clinical and academic medicine by supporting further sub-specialist training, research and development in health faculties in South Africa. Dr Ngubane-Mwandla's work will bring much-needed skills to South Africa's health sector.

"It is an absolute honour and privilege to be part of the nephrology sub-specialty fellowship programme, and the Discovery Foundation has made that possible for me," Dr Ngubane-Mwandla says.

"I want to help improve the lives of children with congenital and acquired renal pathology. Through sharing of knowledge and skills, as well as continued research, I believe we can make a positive impact on our communities," she concludes.

"This article was created for the 2020 Discovery Foundation Awards and has been adapted for the Discovery Magazine.

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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