Start main page content

The queen of hearts

- Wits University

Cardiac anaesthesiologist and recipient of the FALF research excellence award wants to keep hearts pumping.

Associate Professor Palesa Motshabi-Chakane and Head of the Wits Department of Anaesthesiology is committed to growing the field through research, teaching and advocacy

Every child grows up wanting to pursue a particular career, although their answers are likely to change each time when asked what they want to be when they grow up. Some want to be superheroes, others police officers, teachers or even train drivers. At times, these career aspirations are commonly predictable between genders – a reflection of social constructs that reinforce stereotypes of gaging capabilities and intelligence based on gender.

As a young girl, Palesa Motshabi - now an Associate Professor and the Head of the Wits Department of Anaesthesiology says a career in medicine has always been a “natural interest” of hers. “I knew in high school in the village that I grew up in that I wanted to be a doctor, and played doctor with the emergency kit at school,” says Motshabi-Chakane.

She recalls having many conversations with her late uncle, Kgogodi Motshabi, when she was in primary school about wanting to be a medical doctor. She fondly shares how supportive and encouraging her family was throughout the process. “I thank my mother, Mabel Motshabi, for teaching me resilience and my Papa, Ambrose Motshabi, who did everything to afford me this dream of education.” 

Today, she is the first African person in South Africa to have a PhD in anaesthesiology as well as the first female to ever obtain a PhD in cardiac anaesthesiology, completed at Wits.

Anaesthesiology is a speciality in medical sciences that is responsible for inducing a state of unconsciousness and pain management of patients when undergoing surgeries. There are many subspecialties in this field including Cardiothoracic Anaesthesiology, a practice that treats high-risk patients in surgical procedures to the heart, lungs and major blood vessels. 

“[Cardiothoracic Anaesthesiology] has got to be one of the trickiest anaesthesia areas by far. [It’s] fascinating to see aspects of medicine coming together including pharmacology, physiology and anatomy,” she explains.  

Mapping the path to better health

Although her professional achievements and contributions to science are cemented in South Africa’s medical history, these pursuits started with a silly stare-off between friends. When asked how she came to choose her speciality she says “[it was] completely by default. A friend encouraged me to do anaesthesia, or more specifically dared me to”. Neither of them knew that this would later thrust Motshabi-Chakane to years of commitment that saw her facing many challenges to win a “dare”!

She says that carving a unique career path for herself in the speciality of cardiac anaesthesiology was “incredibly hard” as this was not a widely explored area. However, her network of support made the journey a little easier. “It took lots of help from lots of people in and out of the University to make it this far,” says Motshabi-Chakane; recognising her husband, Dr Moretsele Chakane, as well as her mentors Prof. Staton Shernan from Harvard University's Brigham and Women Hospital and Prof. Bruce Biccard who guided her through her PhD research.

In gaining such a breakthrough to have been many “firsts”, she says that this necessitates that she not only imparts her knowledge to her staff and students through clinical cardiac anaesthesiology training but through research as well. She says that the highlight of her research career thus far has been seeing her speciality gaining the interest of younger clinicians and researchers alike which has changed the culture of research in the department of anaesthesiology. “My vision is to have a research-intensive department where doing research, including for PhDs, becomes the norm,” she explains.

Recognition promotes awareness

Motshabi-Chakane is the first recipient of the Research Excellence Award which was conferred in October by the Female Academic Leaders Fellowship (FALF). This recognition concedes to a researcher reaching milestones of pre-eminence in their career such as publishing or being accepted to do so by high-ranking journal/s, receiving personal recognition for research work, and obtaining an NRF rating among other accolades. 

For Motshabi-Chakane, this acknowledgement is encouragement for her and others who aim to walk a similar path to keep going. “This is such an incredible recognition. In a world where recognition is hard to come by, it means that somewhere someone can see me. It is such a great honour, that the FALF board has recognised my efforts in this way.”

She says that her two fields of speciality are not fields where many women, especially Africans, are practising. She stresses that this presents a gap that calls for the deliberate empowerment of women in such spaces – as FALF has done for a wider reach. “Cardiac anaesthesiology and research are areas where an intentional effort has to be made to train women. Opportunities for research and research funding have to be made available for this group.”

Continental Reach

Currently, Motshabi-Chakane is involved in a project that not only highlights the impact of her speciality and skillset in Africa but is also targeted at evaluating cardiovascular interventional and surgical outcomes in the continent. This project is a collaboration of African scientists that are motivated to initiate change by providing health outcomes for its population despite a major funding shortfall.

“My wish with this project is to develop African solutions to improve cardiovascular interventional and surgical outcomes in Africa using resources within Africa by Africans,” she says.

She says that there is a will to expand medical research and knowledge in Africa by exploring untraditional conventions to achieve this. However, she states that resources are not widely accessible to some populations thus leaving them behind. She adds that the lack of funding is one of the main factors that gate keeps the participation of women leading research projects. “I am grateful for the funding I received at the time including  that from the South Africa Medical Research Council,” adds Motshabi-Chakane.

Motshabi-Chakane works closely with a dedicated consultant body in anaesthesiology to make opportunities available to others, noting “we have changed how we do research in anaesthesiology, to make it relevant and impactful to our teaching and training. This then results in ease to publish the work we do”.

She concludes that the future looks promising to bring more African women to pursue research and that the support shown by the FALF board in creating such an organisation will revitalise many. FALF is the brainchild of the Wits Chancellor and leading businesswoman Dr Judy Dlamini and provides grants to African and mixed-race South African women to transform research production and leadership in the higher education sector.

“I want to thank Dr Judy Dlamini for this vision and congratulate her and the board for creating a platform for women to grow and excel in their different areas of specialities,” says Motshabi-Chakane.

Apart from being a leading mind in Cardiothoracic Anaesthesiology, Motshabi-Chakane says her passions outside her career are “gardening and more gardening, from flowering plants to fruit trees” as she’s a firm believer in contributing towards food production through subsistence farming. She also spends some of her downtime sewing, and exploring her interest in musical instruments. However, the role that she holds dearest is “being a mother to my two precious girls”.