Dr Asha Malan first decided to become a medical doctor at school when her biology teacher, Mrs Em Volschenk, triggered an appreciation for the mechanics of the human body. Years later she found her passion for vascular surgery and is the first female vascular surgeon to head an academic division in the country.
Malan (36) heads up the vascular surgery academic division at the Universitas Academic Hospital in Bloemfontein and is one of seven qualified female vascular surgeons in the country.
“I have always been of the opinion that if I achieve something in life, it should be because I worked hard enough for it – and was blessed with God-given opportunities. This was one of the life lessons taught to me by my two amazing parents,” she says.
Beauty in intricacy
Malan is passionate about vascular surgery and believes that it one of the most beautiful types of surgery.
A vascular surgeon is a doctor who treats diseases and problems in our vascular system, which is the network of arteries and veins that circulate blood throughout the body.
Malan adds that it is her obsessive and perfectionist personality that attracted her to vascular surgery, or “the love to fix things”, as she calls it.
“I have always gained great joy from making something cleaner, neater and better. Medicine, and more in particular, surgery, provides you with the absolute privilege to do so for the human body.”
Youngest vascular surgery head
Malan graduated from the Harvard University Surgical Leadership Programme in April this year and says it was an amazing experience to liaise with colleagues in leadership roles within their respective surgical departments across the globe. It was an honour to represent the University of the Free State.
She has been granted opportunities to develop her skills by visiting units in other countries, including Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. Later this year she is off to the Netherlands, France and the US to build on this and teach these skills locally.
“It is an absolute privilege to be in this position at such a young age. I have been in the fortunate position where hard work indeed paid off and to a large extent, I was incredibly lucky,” she says.
While nothing beats saving a life, it takes detailed planning to be a vascular surgeon.
“It is in some aspects like the engineering of surgery – you sometimes have to come up with solutions to problems that no textbook will contain. It is currently one of the fastest growing surgical subspecialties worldwide due to the innovation happening within the field. It is a way of thinking and I love every moment,” says Malan.
Not many women in surgery
Malan says she is honoured to represent women in the field of vascular surgery a historically male-dominated field. One of her main objectives now is to attract more women to this field.
“I am currently one of only two female consultant surgeons in the department of general surgery and I strongly believe we bring a unique perspective. We also have a particular leadership style that is inclusive and encouraging – contributing to an environment where others can grow and strengthen the department.”
According to Malan, surgery historically has a bad name due to the hours and demands of the job. Surgeons need to be available almost all the time – a schedule that fails to conform to the traditional expectations of women.
This is even more so for vascular surgery, as many of our patients require emergency care that does not respect “working hours”. On the other hand, Malan believes most women possess the ability to multitask efficiently.
“Not only can we do a number of things at once, but can also do them well. Females have mastered the art of balancing the demands of both their work and personal lives more and more and society is generally more receptive to this as well. This provides a definite advantage to not only function, but flourish in the field of surgery and vascular surgery.”
The first step to get more women involved in this field, says Malan, is to show it can be done. Females are featuring in surgical leadership roles worldwide on an increasing front and prominent role models are key to igniting interest and self-belief.