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As a girl, Mary Gouws wanted to be a detective but “wasn’t brave enough” to join the police force. Instead, she chose to find solutions for sick people, a bit like the TV series anti-hero Dr House. Now a medical intern in the Eastern Cape, the University of Cape Town (UCT) graduate has learnt to think on her feet in the province’s poorly resourced facilities. She’s a problem-solver and a worthy 2023 Rhodes Scholar-elect.

Dr Gouws is one of two UCT students among the 2023 cohort of 10 Rhodes Scholars-elect from the Southern African constituency. Gouws and UCT’s Dr Joshua Fieggen are both what national secretary of the Rhodes Scholarships in Southern Africa, Ndumiso Luthuli, described as “exceptional young scholars”.

“All are academically gifted, socially committed young leaders, who we believe will have [an] impact on Africa and the world in the years to come.”

Gouws and Dr Fieggen will further their postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom from next year.

Stellar achievements

A scholar at the Diocesan School for Girls in Makhanda, Gouws was on the Independent Examinations Board’s Outstanding list for 2014 and in the top 1% for five of her matric subjects. She was school dux and earned a host of awards and commendations for community work.

She followed suit at UCT, was top of her class throughout the MBChB programme (2015 to 2020), collecting a raft of prizes along the way. In her final year, Gouws was president of the UCT Internal Medicine Society. At university she missed the camaraderie of playing in an orchestra and so got involved with the UCT Health Sciences Orchestra.

“Ultimately, I aim to be a problem-solver – for individual patients and for broader challenges within your healthcare system.”

Always looking for opportunities to help others, Gouws tutored medical students and worked as a volunteer and committee member at the mobile Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) clinic in Khayelitsha.

Big picture thinking

But it was always the challenge of piecing things together that attracted her to medicine.

“[It was] the idea of being faced with a series of symptoms and signs and being able to put these together to come to a diagnosis, and then to treat the disease process. Ultimately, I aim to be a problem-solver – for individual patients and for broader challenges,” she said.

“My experiences at SHAWCO clinics combined with working in the Eastern Cape has contributed to my passion for working in resource-limited settings.”

“My experiences at SHAWCO clinics combined with working in the Eastern Cape has contributed to my passion for working in resource-limited settings.”

The province’s health facilities have also tested Gouws’ versatility as a medical intern where she has worked at Livingstone Tertiary, Dora Nginza Hospital and several clinics in the Nelson Mandela Bay District. At each, Gouws witnessed the hard consequences of inadequate clinical governance and poor resourcing.

“It has been challenging having to account to patients for difficulties in our healthcare system, and why, for example, they must wait for extended periods for an operation or for a specialist appointment.”

The adaptable Gouws has learnt how to think on the spot. When the necessary equipment wasn’t available, she got creative with resources. Her commitment has remained firm.

“The kind of work we do can be mentally and physically exhausting, with many people suffering burnout. It has been very important in the past two years to build a solid support structure,” Gouws noted.

Once she completes her internship at the end of 2022, she will work as a community service medical officer at a community health centre in Gqeberha – until she packs for Oxford.

Beyond clinical medicine

Her experiences in the province have been formative in other ways.

“I used to always envision myself in purely clinical medicine. But in the past two years, I’ve realised that there are several other important dimensions that need work in our healthcare system,” said Gouws.

These include research, clinical management, and ethical practice.

“These are components of healthcare that I want to learn about and contribute to in the South African healthcare system, and I think studying at Oxford University will give me a good base for this.”

There is also the aspect of diverse thinking and practices she is keen to expand.

Place of growth

Starting at Oxford in September next year, Gouws aims to enter the Master of Science in International Health Science and Tropical Medicine programme. Her plan is to continue with a DPhil in clinical medicine before returning to South Africa to specialise in internal medicine.

“I’m looking forward to being surrounded by other scholars, academics, and young people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures, who I can learn from.”

“Long term, I see myself going towards a combination of a clinical and academic career, maybe even at UCT.”

Her hope is that Oxford will be “a place of growth in all dimensions of myself; academically, emotionally and socially”.

“I think the people there will make it special. I’m looking forward to being surrounded by other scholars, academics, and young people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures, who I can learn from, be challenged by – and who will change some of my perspectives of the world.”

And there’s a bonus for the industrious Gouws.

“I will have three-month summer holidays during which I can travel to Europe!”

Bon voyage.

 

DECEMBER 2022 | STORY HELEN SWINGLER. PHOTO SUPPLIED