From township to medical researcher

From township scholar to leading South African medical researcher, Dr Carol Hlela’s rise to the top of the medical profession has been meteoric.

Despite this she remains a humble, sincere individual who is determined to help sick children above all else.

“I was an ordinary girl growing up in the township of Kwa-Mashu near Durban and this certainly brought with it a number of challenges,” admits Dr Hlela. “For one thing women weren’t expected to get ahead in the world and conditions at home made it difficult to focus on learning.

I am grateful that I was able to overcome such obstacles, and hope that my success in becoming a Dermatologist and medical researcher will provide inspiration to other township youngsters to become everything that they can be.”

Youth underestimate themselves

“Too many children from the townships in this country grow up underestimating their abilities,” she continues. “I want to show them that it is possible to succeed. I want them to see that they should keep trying and never give up on their dreams.

I did not ever give up on myself and it has certainly paid off. This country needs the talent and drive of its young people, so I urge them not to hold themselves back with self doubt.”

Asked whether she had always wanted to be in medicine, Dr Hlela said she had first entered the field largely because it was one of the options available to those who were strong in maths and science at school.

However, she observes that she soon felt right at home in the profession and quickly developed a strong passion for it.

Virus spreading rapidly

Dr Hlela is South Africa’s leading expert on the Human T-lymphotropic virus Type 1 (HTLV-1), a sexually transmitted retrovirus which is also passed from mother to child via breast milk. Dr Hlela says the virus typically first expresses itself as a rash, but often develops into a leukaemia that can be fatal.

She suggests that while HTLV-1 is not well known and remains under-researched, it is spreading rapidly in countries such as South Africa.

Dr Hlela is currently undertaking research work on the disease at the Institute of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cape Town, but says she is grateful that the Institute also allows her to treat her patients, most of whom are children.

In addition to enjoying research, which has the potential to break new ground, she also likes to be in close contact with her patients.

Disease killing the children

Dr Hlela completed her Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 1997 and Masters in Medicine, Dermatology, in 2008, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Between 2006 and 2007 she studied a Masters in Science, Global Health Science at the University of Oxford in the UK. Being awarded the prestigious Hamilton Naki Clinical Scholarship in 2007 allowed her to study towards a PhD in Clinical Medicine at Oxford University.

“The Hamilton Naki Scholarship allowed me to hone my skills and to focus on my interests,” observes Dr Hlela. “I saw patients with HTLV-1 particularly during my time at King Edward VIII Hospital in KZN and wanted to get to the bottom of the workings of this retrovirus.

Thanks to the Hamilton Naki Scholarship I was able to concentrate on researching this medical condition and become an expert on it. I hope that I will be able to meaningfully improve our understanding of this disease, which is killing our children.”

Candidates to contribute to healthcare

The Hamilton Naki Clinical Scholarship is a project of the Physician Partnership Trust (PPT), one of the trusts established in terms of Netcare's ‘Health Partners for Life’ initiative, a broad-based empowerment deal. Netcare transferred 10% of its equity to a number of trusts comprising historically disadvantaged beneficiaries including PPT.

The scholarship commemorates the virtually unknown healthcare scientist Hamilton Naki who at one time in his career, was the outstanding assistant to Prof Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who undertook the world’s first heart transplant in 1967. Dr Hlela was the second recipient of the Scholarship.

According to Dr Victor Litlhakanyane, Director of Group Stakeholder Relations at Netcare, The Hamilton Naki Clinical Scholarship is awarded to promising clinical specialists from disadvantaged backgrounds pursuing doctoral or post-doctoral research. Candidates should be of outstanding academic ability and demonstrate a commitment to contribute to academic healthcare in South Africa.

“Netcare has been delighted to watch Dr Hlela grow from strength-to-strength as both a researcher and doctor over the years,” notes Dr Victor Litlhakanyane. “The Hamilton Naki Scholarship was established precisely to develop candidates of high academic calibre who demonstrate a capacity and commitment to make a difference to healthcare in South Africa. Dr Hlela is doing just this and we greatly appreciate her contribution.”

(Press Release, September 2011)

Read more:

Sick children

Breast milk


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