“Surgery is not anything like Grey’s Anatomy, it’s more like a rollercoaster ride” – Dr Agatha Banga

Since its opening in 1919, the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University has conferred over 26 000 degrees. In 2018 alone, over 12 000 students from the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences graduated, of which 303 graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree (MBBCh). And of these 303 surgery graduates, 192 were women. 

 “I’ve noticed that there is a high number of female graduate students in the recent years,” said Susan Parks from the Association of Surgeons of South Africa at the Wits University. Despite this increase in the number of women surgeons, the space remains a male dominated one. To address this issue, the Wits Students Surgical Society (WSSS) created a campaign called “She’s My Surgeon” to displace male pronouns typically associated with surgeons. 

“Historically surgery has been a ‘boys club’ and now that its specialty is diversifying in its practitioners. We wanted to showcase that women are fully capable of being highly successful and revered as surgeons,” president of WSSS, Cassandra Mbanje said.

Dr Carol-Ann Benn, a general surgeon and breast-cancer specialist, and Dr Agatha Banga, a paediatric surgeon, are among the many women surgeons featured in the campaign. Their experiences shed light on the unique challenges faced by women in surgery and their need to change the field to address issues closer to who they are as women. 

Banga is a pediatric surgeon who works at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital. Her day starts in the hospital wards at 5:00 am where she visits her patients and leaves instructions for the day. She then does a handover meeting with consultants, registrars and medical offices to discuss the progress of patients overnight, theatre cases, and any emergency cases.

Banga is usually in theatre by 8:00 am almost every single day. On the days she is not operating, she attends to over 100 patients at the clinic. The Zimabawean native splits her time treating patients at the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, and until recently, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. 

“Surgery is not anything like Grey’s Anatomy, it’s more like a rollercoaster ride. You need to be more attentive, like essential things you need to do for patients such as take blood and do drips. Those are the things that ensure that your patients are ready for theatre and that your patients will do well after theatre,” Banga said.

Much like the Grey’s Anatomy character Meredith Grey, Banga makes her own scrub caps herself which she wears when operating on patients. The 30-year old added, “It’s my way of being myself in the job that I have”.

Dr Agatha Banga, a third year pediatric surgical resident. Photo: Tumelo Modiba.

As a medical student, Banga wanted to specialise as a paediatrician. She then took time off from clinical medicine and studied public health at the University of Cape Town as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar in 2015.

“At that time, I realised I discovered that surgery is a public health intervention and I looked at how many paediatricians are out there versus paediatric surgeons. Children are not little adults, and we actually need paediatric surgeons and not general surgeons to manage children,” Banga said.

Banga, who is married, and plans on having children in the future said,  “You end up dedicating a lot of time to your work and not to your own family time,” she said.  “The sphere of medicine is transforming a lot and women are incorporated into the system.” 

Adjunct Wits professor Dr Carol-Ann Benn set up the first breast unit at the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital 20 years ago. Benn currently runs two national breast units at the Netcare Milpark Hospital and Helen Joseph hospital. 

“The reason [for running the unit] is so that all women with breast problems can contact a national centre and ensure access to best services possible irrespective of medical aid status or lack thereof,” she said.

As a child, Benn always wanted to practice medicine. During medical school she fell in love with surgery. “I thought I could save the world as a trauma surgeon,” she said. Benn, is a locally and internationally renounced breast health specialist surgeon and a professor of surgery at Wits. 

Benn works six days a week and tries to take Sunday’s off but will occasionally work on a Sunday. She spends most of her week at the Helen Joseph hospital where she is the head of the breast clinic. Helen Joseph hospital has two surgical theatre lists where Benn operates on patients with a variety of breast conditions. Benn treats breast cancer patients, people with breast aesthetic concerns, and people with any breast problems, as well as men and children with breast problems.


Benn says her career ‘chose her’.

“This country needed a voice. There are many voices now, but I have always had a need to ensure that people have access to education, and care. This had been installed in me by my mom.

“When I suggest being a stay-at-home mom, which is a hectic hard job, my kids and husband get a desperate look on their faces and go, ‘oh no mom please don’t’,” said the mother of three.

Married to emergency medical specialist, Dr Charl van Loggerenberg, both Benn and her husband’s work and personal lives are often intertwined. However, the couple always ensure they set aside to spend it with their children.

Often known for her emphatic approach with patients, Benn said “medicine is not about money, but it is a vocation. It is not about prestige but rather about every anxiety you suffer to ensure that you can do better to help make a difficult patient’s journey more tolerable and with better outcomes”.

Dr Carol-Ann Benn stands behind the wall of empowerment at the Helen Joseph Hospital Breast Unit. Photo: Tumelo Modiba.

Kelly Blair, committee member of the WSSS, said, “It is always incredibly humbling to wrap one’s head around the amount of time and work it takes for someone to become a qualified surgeon, no matter their gender.”

Karabo Ramathoka, head of social media of the WSSS, added that “I felt empowered by these female surgeons. As a female my achievements are only limited by mind and work ethic”. 

FEATURED IMAGE: A few members from the Wits Students Surgical Society. Photo: Tumelo Modiba.