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In surgery, knife came before the husband

Health & Science
 Dr Mary Andhoga. She is a palliative doctor in Whanganui, New Zealand. [File, Standard]

She dreamt of being a surgeon when it was a male specialty. No woman dared delve into it.

It was not surprising that male colleagues at medical school at the University of Nairobi just laughed when she told them of her desire. 

Dr Mary Andhoga, the first Kenyan woman to break the glass ceiling in surgery, is currently a palliative doctor in Whanganui, New Zealand. She settled there in 2016 after working as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon for some years in the UK.

She could have returned to Kenya, but had no close family left having lost her parents, all three siblings and husband. 

The alumnus of Ng’iya and Alliance Girls schools recalls her journey which began with fellow students laughing at her. 

“They told me I could not make it because the Dean at the Medical School could not allow women to join surgery,” she says, “So, I decided to practice diplomacy following what my father would have done.”

She wrote a letter to the Dean stating what she had been warned, and that was how she ended up with a slot to specialise in surgery in the late 1970s.

The Dean denied the allegations and asked her to apply, but on the interview day, she waited from morning until 5pm when she was finally interviewed. She thought she would be first as her name started with ‘A.’ Shock on her.

The panel comprised former lecturers who all pretended not to know her. One even asked: “in surgery, the saying goes; knife before husband, so in your case, what is it going to be?’  

This question, according to Dr Andhoga, was to demean women going into surgery, categorising them as belonging to the kitchen and taking care of husbands and children which she thought should not make women pick careers of their choice.

Eventually, in a class of more than 50 students, she was the only woman. Male students often expected her to change and become more “manly”; dress like a man, or walk and talk like a man, but she stuck to her feminine self.

“I arrived in class a few minutes before it started and I would make my hair, wear my pretty dresses, and stilettos and walk along the corridor such that my shoes would announce my arrival because they expected that since I had chosen a ‘man’s career,’” she recalls. “They thought I would change and behave like a man, probably wear jeans and sneakers but they soon gave up and accepted me into their class.

Dr Andhoga graduated with a Bachelors of Medicine in 1983 and Bachelors in Surgery in 1988. She moved to London to specialise, but also free herself from her husband who had a drinking problem. But little did she know the culture shock that awaited her: weather, different ways of life, racism.

In London, Dr Andhoga enjoyed working long hours in theatre she often lost track of time. One day, someone sneaked into the hospital, picked her bag and used her keys to steal stuff in her house.

 A year later, she invited her children, then aged six and seven to visit, but ended cancelling their flight back to Kenya. Her career was picking up and she had also given birth to a son. Coming to Kenya was off the cards as it was akin to returning to the situation she had fled from.  

Again, she had lost many close family members to accidents and illnesses. Her mother died when she was barely eight, her younger brother died crossing the road to school and her sister died of cholera.

“For a while, I didn’t know who my people were, and I didn’t know who was my go-to person and so when I joined palliative medicine, everybody could not understand why and some even thought I was dealing with my grief and loss but to me, I joined palliative medicine because it made a lot of sense to me.”

A friend had introduced her to palliative medicine and shortly found a job. But on day one, she faced too many deaths at the hospice and “when I went back to the hospice the next day, they told me I had been ‘baptized by fire’ and were certain I wasn’t coming back. But I was not quitting.”

Changing from plastic surgery to palliative medicine was not a difficult as the two had some commonality: both are psychologically driven. She also believes there are a lot of existential issues people go through and if the helper only focuses on the psychological ones, he or she may never give them the care they deserve.

One lesson learnt from plastic surgery and which she is using in her palliative medicine is understanding why somebody wanted to have reconstruction.

“If you do not understand their psyche,” she explains, “you will be chasing your tail because you change their eyes and they will want their nose changed, you change the nose next they want their mouth changed, and before you know it, you have done everything on their body and they might still not be satisfied.”

For terminally ill patients, she has to understand and conform to their psychological, emotional, spiritual and existential issues to give them the care and dignity they deserve in life.

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