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The heart of the work, a woman who heals

- Didi Mmatladi

Dr Mulai Slave says the trailblaizing women around her made it possible to imagine working as a specialist in anaesthesiology.

“I don’t see the patient as a diagnosis or a disease; ‘the diabetic foot in bed 10, the uncontrolled epileptic in bed 12 etc.’ I see them as a mother, a child, an uncle or aunt; I see a person who is desperately loved by their family,” says Dr Mulai Slave (MMed 2021).Dr Mulai Slave

To Dr Slave, whose own family is central to every stage and significant moment in her life, the analogy of imagining them as someone’s “family” is her default humanising approach. She and her brother were raised by their single mother who would buy a 2-litre bottle of Fanta and a fresh loaf of bread that they would share as a family after every payday. She says she remembers how these moments brought her happiness, “just the three of us, playing Lucky Dube cassettes on the radio and dancing and drinking that tasty Fanta was pure joy,” she recalls.

As a young girl, music fascinated her. While watching a programme about Shaka Zulu with her father one day, she asked him what made a certain deep melodious sound she heard. He replied that it was a cello. From that day, she was captured by the instrument and wanted to learn how to play it. She adds “Growing up in Polokwane – then Pietersburg then, in the days before the internet, I did not know anyone who could teach me, but as soon as I graduated from medical school, I found a cello teacher and the rest is history”. She says that she might have pursued this passion professionally. However, sometimes a single event in one’s life can redefine their lifelong purpose.

Life-changing event

At age 11, Dr Slave lost her father after a tragic car accident that stripped off the skin on his forehead which left his frontal bone exposed and dry. “The plastic surgeons then decided to drill burr holes into the bone to try to stimulate bleeding and granulation over the site, allowing them to graft skin over it,” she explained. However, things took a drastic decline – subsequently leading to his demise.  

This, she says, was the profound turning point in her life, adding “I knew that the doctors had done their best, but growing up without a father was very difficult for me and I realised the impact that medical decisions have on patients and their families at large”. Her decision to pursue medicine was made to help people not to go through life without their loved ones. But targets come at a cost.

When faced with a challenging situation, she says her approach is to “Do it scared”. She says that she specialises in anaesthesia because the intervention of acute medicine can change a situation. She adds that although it is very uncommon to lose patients in the theatre, when it does happen, she remembers almost every patient that she loses. This is the worst aspect of humanity that she can’t shake off but says going for therapy and counselling routinely helps her manage her disposition to these situations. “…I spend weeks thinking over what could have been done differently, to bring out a different outcome,” she says.

Human-touch approach

The patients that Dr Slave has treated into recovery live in the testimony to her “human-touch” approach. One such patient affectionately wrote to the Wits saying that being treated by a ‘whizz kid’ like Dr Slave. He said, “Before she put me out she said I will see you on the other side. We still need you in this country”. He added that “I will never forget the respect, love and professionalism she showed throughout”.

Dr Slave says that she sees being invested in her patients as a strength rather than a weakness because a good attitude can improve patients' outcomes. This is a quality that she always tries to impart to her trainee doctors, stressing that the first step to giving kinder care is to call patients by their names. “Speak to them directly, listen to them, examine them, and treat them the way you would like to be treated if you were in their position” she teaches.

Influential pioneers

She, herself, has learnt a great deal in her profession through the guidance and teachings of other physicians – particularly women. She describes her mentor and cardiothoracic anaesthesiologist, Associate professor Palesa Motshabi-Chakane (PhD 2019), as a brilliant woman. Apart from being the first black woman in South Africa to hold a PhD in anaesthesiology, Slave says Professor Motshabi-Chakane has taught her the “power of not taking no for an answer”.

Another woman that she looks up to professionally, is also a fellow Witsie and former schoolmate, Professor Salome Maswime (MMed 2014, PhD 2017). “To see her obtain her PhD in obstetrics and gynaecology, obtain a research fellowship at the prestigious Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, among other accolades, then go on to be a world leader in global surgery, and obtain a full professorship at the tender age of 40, makes it possible for someone like me to imagine myself occupying such spaces,” says Dr Slave.

As a student, anaesthesiology captivated her because she found the slow-paced management approach of internal medicine frustrating. She says that the ability to manipulate physiology, using pharmacology in real time was enchanting to her, she did not want to wait six weeks to see if the drug was working! Today, as a specialist and PhD candidate in this field, she says she appreciates that anaesthesiology enables her to still practice as a ‘generalist’. She adds that anaesthesiology encompasses the whole of clinical medicine, “…almost every type of patient will require an anaesthetic, from neonates to geriatrics, to obstetric patients, even psychiatric patients”.

With all said about the science of medicine, Dr Slave says that without fail, she learns daily how truly precious and fragile life is. This is the approach that she carries in her own life every day which she says informs her deliberate presence and actions in the lives of her loved ones. She describes her family as her “home”.

She says that her mother, Dr Mungandi Monde Monica Kazeni, whom she calls ‘Professor Mommy’ has single-handedly molded her into the woman she is today. “She challenged me to reach her level or surpass her. I have one more qualification to go before I get to her level,” she exclaims. As her mother and other fierce women in her life have set an impressionable example in her life, Dr Slave says that she also wants her daughters to be strong, intelligent, and kind women by her own example.