Meet the first black woman to qualify as a plastic surgeon in SA

Posted on 13 August 2019

The first black woman to qualify as a plastic surgeon in SA is driving her field into the future.

“As a surgeon you are helping people in a physical and meaningful way. But what we do has an emotional effect too. Plastic surgery can have a huge benefit in a person’s life.”

Having taken great strides in breaking barriers in her own career, Dr Gloria Tshukudu continues to drive her field into the future, by offering innovative, compassionate care to those who need it most.

“Plastic and reconstructive surgery can improve a person’s confidence and sense of self-worth,” she explains. “When I was studying, and I saw first-hand how reconstructive surgery can have a huge benefit in a person’s life, I was inspired to do more.”

Dr Tshukudu graduated with a degree in medicine at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, previously known as Medical University of South Africa. She then completed her internship at Paul Kruger Memorial Hospital in Rustenburg, outside Johannesburg, and went on to receive a Master of Medicine degree at the University of Limpopo’s Ga-Rankuwa Medical University at the end of 2012.

In 2013, she became the first black woman to qualify as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in South Africa, and today, she is a sessional plastic surgeon at Mediclinic Muelmed in Pretoria and Mediclinic Legae in Mabopane.

“It’s a common misperception that plastic surgery patients come in for elective procedures – breast augmentation, for example, or cosmetic facelift surgery. In some cases this is true, but a lot of my patients are here because they need to be, not because they want to be.”

One emerging trend in SA shows promise in expanding expertise to more patients, she says. Plastic microsurgery offers plastic surgeons a means to perform certain procedures that would be difficult, or even impossible, without a microscope – including transferring tissue from one part of the body to another, known as free tissue transfer, reattaching severed parts and composite tissue transplantation.

Dr Tshukudu explains she treats many cancer survivors who need reconstructive surgery to repair the effects of having had their tumours removed, and trauma victims who have been mutilated in an accident. In these cases, reconstructive microsurgery offers surgeons an opportunity to work within tiny areas with fine precision.

Reconstructing missing tissue is about a lot more than simply finding new tissue to replace it, says Dr Tshukudu: it means transferring a piece of tissue to the site, and then delicately reconnecting severed nerves and blood vessels without damaging them. Unless surgeons are able to reconnect these nerve endings and restore blood supply successfully, the new tissue will have no chance of surviving.

Surgeons will utilise specific operating microscopes and other precise instruments to repair tiny and intricate blood vessels and nerves, some of which are less than a few millimeters in diameter. They can also use this technique to transplant large sections of tissue, muscle or bone from one part of the body to another.

“If we need to reconstruct a patient’s breast or reattach a finger, for example – this is when microsurgery is helpful, as it allows you to reattach the tissue one nerve and blood vessel at a time. This is a lot more accurate, and has a higher chance of success.”

For burn victims and amputees, the chance to regain a sense of freedom is priceless. Dr Tshukudu is inspired by seeing her patients walk out of her offices with hope. “Plastic surgery is about more than helping people look good,” she says. “I’ve seen it in my patients’ faces: they feel restored, transformed.”

Becoming the first black woman to qualify as a plastic surgeon in SA wasn’t easy, and has taken years of hard work, says Dr Tshukudu. Now, she is driven to motivate other women to own their health journeys. “My story is simple: I really enjoy helping people feel better about themselves, and I went out and got it. For others, my advice is the same – never give up. Believe in yourself. Have faith.”

Published in Innovation