Surgeon with Guillain-Barre Syndrome Graduates with PhD

A medical condition robbed KwaZulu-Natal surgeon Dr Michelle Smith of her ability to perform surgery but could not stop her from continuing to contribute to the field of surgery or from graduating from UKZN with a PhD in Health Sciences (Surgery)!

‘I am immensely proud of my academic achievement, especially since it adds new knowledge in a field that I am passionate about,’ said Smith.

‘Just after qualifying as a surgeon in 2017, I contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome which took away my ability to perform surgery due to the permanent nerve damage it caused, however, falling in love with research and getting this degree has taught me that I can still contribute to the surgical field, albeit in a different way.’

Smith is a specialist surgeon at Greys Hospital in Pietermaritzburg where she sub-specialises in critical care as well as supporting and teaching young researchers to generate their first research papers.

Her study identified risk factors for mortality and adverse events in patients undergoing emergency laparotomy for non-traumatic surgical conditions. ‘Identifying high-risk patients enables surgeons to employ strategies to ameliorate this risk,’ she said.

This study found that having comorbid chronic illnesses as well as active TB and HIV increased the chances of adverse outcomes in patients undergoing emergency laparotomy. Her research also discovered that there were physiological parameters as well as certain components of surgery that may attribute to an increased risk of mortality.

‘I work full-time as a specialist in an academic hospital so finding time to dedicate to my PhD was not always easy, however, setting realistic timelines for various aspects of the course helped me stay focused,’ she said.

‘My time at UKZN was very rewarding. My supervisor Professor Damian Clarke and the support staff were always helpful.’

Smith (37) lives in Howick with her partner Marike and their two dogs. They enjoy being outdoors and travelling around southern Africa.

Words: Lihle Sosibo

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan