A Job Not for the Faint-Hearted [analysis]

THE atmosphere is tense at the Windhoek Central Hospital cardiac unit as surgeon Jones Nghaamwa and his team prepare for their third heart operation in a week.

Jones (36), Namibia’s first black cardiothoracic surgeon, has offered us a rare opportunity to witness him and his team at work.

After introducing us to his team, dressed in green scrubs and masks, Jones, along with Doctor Henning du Toit, who is leading the operation, prepares to open the patient’s chest. We also wore green scrubs and masks to get the feel of being a surgeon.

The team cracks a few jokes to lighten up the tense mood in the theatre, which comes with any heart operation. The jokes, however, stop as soon as the knife is placed on the patient’s chest.

Jones looks relaxed as he asks an assistant nurse to pass him some tools that are lying on the operating table, while his other hand is coated with blood spurting from the patient’s heart.

“I will need you to keep your voices down as we begin with the operation,” he tells us.

The operation, which involves stopping the patient’s heart and then restarting it, lasts about an hour, although he says some operations can last up to eight hours, depending on the severity of a patient’s condition.

“Today’s patient,” Jones tells us, “has a condition called atrial septal defect.This means the patient has a hole in her heart. My team and I are going to close that hole.”

In silence, we watched as the team opens up the patient’s chest and delicately prod in the ribcage to plug the hole in the heart. Only five months into his dream career, one would expect Jones to be nervously fumbling with the operation tools, but the young surgeon is clearly a natural as he performs his third heart surgery in a week.

MARRIED TO THE JOB

We had earlier met Jones at a cafe in town before he invited us to see him in action. Reluctant at first to say who he is and where he comes from, Jones had, however, told us that his work places a heavy responsibility on him.

“The thought of being entrusted with someone’s heart in my hand is overwhelming,” he had said, adding: “I’m no one special. I simply grabbed the opportunities and resources that were at my disposal and made the best of them, and I believe any other young person can do the same.”

Cardiothoracic surgery, he explains, involves the surgical treatment of diseases affecting organs inside the thorax such as the general treatment of conditions of the heart and lungs.

Jones says he has learned the secret to being a competent surgeon after graduating from a South African university.

“Being a surgeon requires complete discipline. It does not stop once you have stitched up the patient’s skin or after leaving the theatre,” he says, admitting that it is a hassle to strike a balance between his work and private life.

“My wife is my job and my children are the hearts that I operate on everyday. On a serious note, I do make time for other things but my job comes first,” he says.

He says the fact that he is the first black cardiothoracic surgeon in the country reflects on how much Namibia is lagging behind in so many areas.

“But it also means that we are taking our first baby steps to get to where we are supposed to be as a country,” he adds.

Jones also says Namibia is one of a few African countries that has state-of-the-art cardiac units.

“Most African countries do not have a single cardiac unit and have to depend on other countries for heart surgery,” he says, adding that currently Namibia still depends on South Africa for heart transplants but hopes this will change in future.

GROWING UP

Born and raised in Ohangwena at Oipapakane Village, Jones, describes himself as an “opportunity grabber” who loves challenges.

He was raised in a household with 14 other siblings, but that did not stop the Nghaamwa family from educating all their children, despite the family’s limited financial resources at the time. Jones also has two other siblings who are medical practitioners.

At the tender age of four, his father Usko Nghaamwa, who is the current governor of Ohangwena Region, and mother Lucia , a teacher by profession, already knew that their son was destined for great things and enrolled him at one of the local schools with the little money they had. From an early age, Jones had big dreams and worked hard to realise them. He attended his primary school at Maria Bron Roman Catholic School in the 1980s, a farm school near Grootfontein, before matriculating at Concordia College in Windhoek.

“When I was growing up, I thought I was going to be a mechanical engineer because I was prone to confusion just like everyone else,” he says, but after reconsidering career options, he got curious about heart surgery.

Although he knew that he was destined to be a surgeon, he had no idea what it means to be a surgeon until he saw and practised it.

Jones did his internship at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in Durban, a place where medicine students thrive, and for him, going there was his saving grace, but adds that his journey to success has not been without challenges.

Having graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban last year after six years of studying, he says he is honoured to be back home to serve the public through his chosen field.

PROUD PARENTS, RICH HERITAGE

Today, his parents are proud and excited about his success, affectionately calling him by his traditional name, Metumo. His mother, Lucia, says that he was always the most disciplined child among his siblings while growing up.

“Our encouragement to him had a way of coming back in double measures,” says Lucia, adding that although it was difficult to send their children to school during the war with no money, it has paid off.

She says Metumo was never a quiet child. He would always play around with things, and always made something out of broken items.

She also remembers him as a hard worker who would never complain about being tired. “He would always be the first child at class even before his teachers arrived,” she remembers fondly. In a humbled tone, Lucia states that all she wishes for her son is that he serves the nation well.

“We will pray for his hands and mind everyday. We wish him strength, so he can serve his people and the entire nation,”.

Asked what he thought of his son’s success, governor Nghaamwa cannot contain his excitement.

“It’s not my victory alone, it’s a national victory. He is serving the entire nation more than us as his parents. Plus, I did not do it alone, I had overwhelming support from my friends,” he declares.

Nghaamwa says his son has always been an orderly person. “All his siblings were afraid of him because he was an orderly person. He would instruct everyone to do things, spick-and-span.”

He acknowledges his community’s support, as they have helped him sent his children to school. Although he comes from an uneducated family, Nghaamwa made sure his own children were enjoying formal education. He paid for their school fees by selling vetkoeks, home-made bread and fried fish.

“I had to struggle to pay for their education and managed to send them all to school with my meagre earnings,” he says.

In Ohangwena, Nghaamwa has made it his golden rule that no child should miss a chance to go to school.

“People should meet government half way, only then can we have future leaders in this country who will be able to plough back into the community,” he confidently aised.

ENCOURAGING, SERVING THE POOR

Jones says he is honoured to be back home to serve the public. He says he chose the public health sector because he believes it still has the potential to be the leading quality health provider in the country despite some drawbacks.

“I want to serve as an inspiration for the youth because they can be whatever they want to be. The resources are there. Government has the resources and finances available, all they have to do is ask,” he says.

He adds that young people should change their mindsets and stop feeling sorry for themselves because of their impoverished backgrounds.

“People should stop blaming poverty as an excuse for not accomplishing their dreams. Gone are the days when your background defined who you are. Anything is possible if young people make proper use of their opportunities,” he aises.

Asked why after 24 years of independence Namibia only got its first black heart surgeon this year, he shrugs and says, “Perhaps it’s the lack of interest from our young professionals.”

Jones also says school graduates need a lot of exposure to stop them from choosing wrong careers.

“Be inspired, learn more, explore possibilities. Don’t be afraid to explore,” he says.

He says now that he has paved the way for other young heart surgeons to follow, he hopes that there will be many more after him.

Source : The Namibian