For Cuban-trained doctor, healing begins at home
Dr Mngadi’s tough journey began when he and hundreds of others from poor homes left to study in Cuba
To celebrate Christmas Day, 26-year-old Dr Nhlanhla Mngadi’s family gathered around his humble homestead made up of rondavels in a poverty-stricken part of Mid-Illovo, on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
Although they have an electronic stove, they prepared their meal on a fire to cut costs. But Mngadi was adamant that was the last time Christmas would unfold that way. As of last week, everything would change.
On January 2, Mngadi treated a number of patients at Durban’s RK Khan Hospital for the first time as a medical intern within the family medicine (psychiatry) unit. It was the culmination of a journey that began in 2011 when he and hundreds of other poor South African children left their homes to study medicine in Cuba, a country with a strong focus on health education and disease prevention, rather than cure.
Since 1997, 940 KZN medical students have been enrolled in Cuba, thanks to an agreement signed by former president Nelson Mandela and his Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro. The programme was also pioneered by then health minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It has since produced 127 doctors, while 438 are now studying in Cuba and 291 are completing their studies in SA.
Now Mngadi’s biggest mission is to build his 64-year-old mother a home she can be proud of.
Commenting on his move to RK Khan Hospital and his first day at work, Mngadi said: “I am extremely excited. I’m over the moon ... short of words. I’m also a bit nervous because I’m not sure what to expect. The responsibility on my shoulders is huge. Working as a doctor is unlike being a student. There’s nervousness, which I guess is normal.”
He added he was grateful for the Cuban programme and the opportunities it had given him.
“I left in 2011 not knowing what challenges I would face. We’ve come a long way; now we must go back to our communities and serve them,” he said.
Mngadi’s father died when he was eight, leaving his mother, a low-paid road maintenance worker and now a pensioner, to raise him and his six siblings. Mngadi is the first to acknowledge that had it not been for the SA-Cuba medical training programme, a child like him from an impoverished home becoming a doctor would be nothing but a pipe dream.
He said his journey had been difficult, and singled out humility, hard work and perseverance as factors that contributed to his success.
“There are lots of challenges along the way, but if you remain headstrong and work hard, you can achieve. I am very grateful for the support from our government, especially in KZN. They supported us a great deal when we were in Cuba.”
The future looks bright for Mngadi.
“The situation at home has not been good. But I’m pleased that has now to come to an end. I’m no longer perturbed by it, because I know that things will only get better from here. My biggest wish is to build my mother a house that she can be proud of. A home that has warmth, which will give her dignity. That is the first thing in my mind.”
KZN health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo, who accompanied Mngadi to RK Khan Hospital on his first day last Monday, described his story as a heartwarming example of how government continued to change the lives of young people, their families and communities at large through the Cuba programme.
“What we see in the life of Dr Mngadi are the fruits of perseverance from his side. It’s a good story to tell about our country. He comes from a poverty-stricken community that nobody knew could produce a doctor.
“He carries the burden to become a good doctor, but also to eradicate poverty at his home. His mother and sisters must look up to him for a better life. He’s one of those doctors that I’ve taken under my wing and supported, knowing his background. We wish him and many others like him everything of the best,” he said.
Agiza Hlongwane is a spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal health department.