Age is just a number for Dr Thakgalo Thibela. This comes after achieving her childhood dream and becoming the youngest female practising medical doctor in South Africa at age 21.
Hailing from Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga, Thibela was initially accepted to study nuclear engineering. However, she does not think she would have been satisfied in the long run because she has wanted to become a doctor since her pre-school years.
Thibela had a remarkable school journey. She started first grade when she was six years old, skipped a few grades due to being an excellent scholar, and did matric when she was 15.
A star scholar from early on
“I started school at the same age as everyone else, so I was six years old in grade 1, but I had a very competitive spirit in primary school. My high school teachers were very supportive, and I always wanted to be the best at what I did. I guess that helped because that resulted in me skipping grade 7, and maybe that spirit may have followed me to high school, and that’s how I got to skip grade 9 as well.
Finishing school earlier than most and going to university at an early age did come with obstacles, however, Thibela says she never allowed any obstacle to be a discouraging factor in her journey.
Starting her medical journey
After being admitted to Wits University at the age of 16, she graduated at age 21 with a bachelor of medicine and a bachelor of surgery (MBBCH).
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, since my pre-school days. Although I’m still trying to figure out which kind, I’ve just had this desire and passion to help people that I believe God placed in my heart, and ever since then, I’ve never seen myself as anything else but a doctor.”
Thibela, now 24, began her career during the coronavirus pandemic and has been working for three years.
She says being so young has not been challenging, and it is not even something she thinks about or that comes up a lot, nor has she been treated differently because of her age.
“It is only when a patient or staff member asks how old I am that I remember that I’m younger than some of my colleagues. When patients question me, it’s never from a place of concern. I’ve had a few say they are proud of me and my achievements and that they will tell their children or grandchildren about me as a way to motivate them.”
Working with children
Thibela is currently doing her medical community service at Mapulaneng Hospital in Bushbuckridge where she was born. She reflects on what she does daily, saying her day starts at eight in the morning and ends at four on most days, except when on call, where she can be at the hospital anywhere from 24 to 28 hours.
“I am currently working in the paediatrics department, which means I work with babies and children until 12 years of age. So sometimes I’m there as the babies are born, and sometimes I’m called to see them when they come to the emergency department or the clinics. So basically, I manage patients both in the ward, including the ICU, and in the clinic.
Not all sunshine and roses
According to Thibela, the career comes with some challenges, such as days where you want to quit, days where your feet will be on fire from standing for too long or just running around the hospital, and days where you will question yourself whether you are smart enough and cut out for the career.
Some patients curse, are ungrateful, and can even make one cry, she admits. Nevertheless, she says it also brings countless rewarding experiences, such as admitting a patient and seeing through their recovery until they are discharged.
“I’ve learned that it is a very demanding, stressful, and yet rewarding career. It will break you and make you question yourself, God, and medicine as a whole. It will deprive you of social life at times, and that will affect your relationships. You will have mental, emotional, and physical breakdowns every now and then. You basically have to want to do it and love it to survive; otherwise, you will quit once it starts getting tough.
“It’s really not surprising that some doctors commit suicide; they deal with a lot on a daily basis, so if you know someone, please check on them on a regular basis. If you always overlook all of the negatives and focus on the positive side of medicine, you will be fine,” she advises.
Keeping the faith
Thibela mentions that her biggest influence in life has been God because He has made it possible for her to make it through some tough times. She adds that He has also always kept the desire burning within her and has kept her going for all these years, with inspiration from many other medical powerhouses as well.
“My family has also been my number one supporter, especially my mom, who taught me to always talk to God and let him do what he does best, which I did. God is the reason I was able to achieve what I achieved and is the reason I’m still here today,” she says.
“There are other people that inspire me though like Prof. Salome Maswime and Dr Boitumelo Phakathi. They are powerhouses in their respective medical fields, and the fact that they are not only women but also black further reinforces to me that the sky is not the limit, you can soar to greater heights if you work hard enough.”
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