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Dr Thakgalo Thibela is anything but your ordinary 21-year-old.
While most people her age are either busy completing their degrees or figuring out what career path they want to follow, Thibela has been on the frontline at Helen Joseph Hospital in Joburg saving lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.
That’s because, Thibela is one of South Africa’s youngest doctors having recently received her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Witwatersrand.
“It’s really challenging,” Thibela told the Saturday Star. “The number of patients who test positive for Covid-19 daily that we have to treat is scary. It’s made worse when people say we are killing their family members when we are literally doing our best, barely sleeping.”
At 21, Thibela has a huge amount of responsibility. And while it’s been a tough few months, she’s taken it all in her stride.
“I made the choice to come to the Helen Joseph and while it has been challenging, I have enjoyed my time. There’s a lot of support and you never feel alone. I’m looking forward to the two years that I’ll be spending here.
“Even on the most hectic of days when I contemplated my life choices I never thought of switching careers, I wouldn’t even know what to do even if I had to do something else.”
Thibela has been trending on social media in the past two weeks, after she was lauded as one of the country’s youngest ever doctors.
Asked how she felt about achieving such a monumental feat, she said it still hadn’t sunk in.
“Since high school I’ve always been the youngest in my class, but I’ve never felt like it, so when I graduated I didn’t even feel that I’m the youngest because my age is not a thing that was brought up a lot.
“It still has not sunk in to be honest but I know it’s a huge achievement so I am really proud of myself.”
“I remember when I had to apply for university and I had to choose three fields of study, I didn’t know which other things to choose besides medicine, so I literally just chose the others randomly and hoped that I got my first choice.”
At her primary school, Farel Primary, she skipped Grade 7 and was immediately promoted to high school.
At Lehlasedi High School, Thibela skipped Grade 9 too and matriculated at the age of 15, with seven distinctions out of eight subjects. She then went to Wits, where she earned Golden Key International Membership.
“I was very fortunate that the schools I went to (public schools by the way) promoted students they felt were doing well academically, so as a result I didn’t do Grade 7 and 9 and I also started school a year early which enabled me to complete matric at 15.”
At 16, she made the journey from her village in Mpumalanga to Joburg.
But the move wasn’t easy, recalled Thibela.
“I had to learn to be independent really quickly at just 16. I also struggled with self-esteem issues. Coming from a village and being in this big city and huge campus with people from all over. I felt like maybe it was a mistake for me to be there and that maybe I didn’t belong.
“I struggled to express myself in group settings and that affected me a lot when I got to my clinical years because being confident and able to express yourself was what was needed. I’d always be told to be more confident and speak up because I know the answers. I’m still trying to overcome it.”
Despite the challenges she pushed through and finally graduated this year.
Thibela, said this was not only a huge achievement for her, but for the village she comes from too.
“As a black female from a rural area, this a huge thing for me and for my people back home. It’s a reminder to all the young girls that we are capable of being whatever we want.
“Violetbank is a rural area that’s still facing a lot of challenges. That was all I knew and because of the sense of community we have, it was a good place to grow up. I hope I am able to inspire others in my community to chase their dreams.”
She added that her family were incredibly proud of her achievements.
“My parents are educated, so education is something that is emphasised at home. I was fortunate to grow up in a middle-class home, so almost everything we required was provided and any study guides I needed I got. I guess that helped me better focus on my studies. My family are very proud of me.”
Helping patients brings her the greatest of joy.
“The gratitude patients have after receiving help brings me so much joy. Seeing smiles on patients faces after a consultation or when they get discharged from hospital is why I love this job so much. I’ve always wanted to help people and medicine has given me the platform to do just that.”
Thibela has her eye on becoming a neurosurgeon eventually.
“The brain and nervous system has always fascinated me. If the brain stops working, whether your heart is still beating or not, you are considered dead.
“For me the brain is the most important organ in the human body and I would like to know more about it and help people who have brain and nervous system lesions get better.”
She also has some advice for youth who are interested in becoming doctors.
“It is possible, just know that. Start doing your research into which university you want to go to early so you know what is required and start working on making sure that you get accepted.
“Hard work and determination is all you need. It’s not easy and you will get drained and question your life choices at some point but it is worth it.”