Born and bred in Cape Town, Dr Sarah Whitehead recalls a lovely childhood surrounded by consistent love, laughter, fun moments, and support from her family. As both her parents were big anti-apartheid activists, she was taught from a young age to use her voice and to stand up for what she believed in.
Being born with a developmental ventricular anomaly in the brainstem leading to a physical disability, has shown that physical disabilities do not limit one’s ability to excel in their chosen profession.
Whitehead has been a successful medical doctor with a disability for about 13 years. She also holds a PhD in health sciences education (medical education and disability focus) and is the executive director of Zimele, a non-profit organisation that provides comprehensive prosthetic rehabilitation to amputees from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I studied Xhosa in high school because I knew I wanted to work with people and stay in South Africa. I also took biology and science because I thought I might end up in the healthcare sector and would need those subjects,” she states.
A life-changing experience
“I initially thought I would study law and journalism – very different, I know, but I guess that just shows how changeable a 17-year-old can be – and was accepted at Rhodes for that. But after a conversation with a friend’s mom, who was an occupational therapist, I decided to study occupational therapy. Three-quarters of the way through my first year, I decided to change to medicine.
Now the executive director of Zimele, which guides and assists any amputee – leg, foot, arm, and hand – with their rehabilitation journey no matter whether the individual is pre- or post-amputation, Whitehead spends most of her days contributing to its growth.
Giving clients a sense of independence
“In 2018, I got involved in a support group for amputees. We were health professionals from different disciplines who gave amputees free holistic advice for their rehabilitation journeys. The prosthetist in the group, Jayson Chin and I grew frustrated at how limited we were when the need for our services was so great and we could not access funds. We started talking about starting a non-profit, and in 2020, we founded Zimele. Zimele is Xhosa for independence. This word is central to what Zimele wants to give its clients,” she explains.
“It is not always glamorous or interesting work, particularly the often infuriating and seemingly endless admin that non-profits are required to do. Sometimes I feel completely out of my depth, especially doing the financial stuff – I am a doctor, not an accountant – but then I hear feedback about how Zimele has changed someone’s life, and that motivates me to keep pushing and growing Zimele.”
Living with DVA
Highlighting her disability, Whitehead tells Health For Mzansi that she was born with DVA, which is an abnormality in the normal venous architecture of the brain. Despite the disability, her contributions demonstrate her resilience and determination to overcome any challenges.
“I have a developmental venous anomaly (DVA) in my brainstem. My DVA has a tight stenosis or narrowing, causing pressure on surrounding structures, hence the manifestation of symptoms related mainly to mobility.
“There’s a very unfortunate and common misconception that if you have one disability, you must have a cognitive disability too. So over the years, I have been on the receiving end of people seeing my physical disability and immediately assuming that the stethoscope around my neck was not mine or part of some game of make-believe. This assumption came mainly from other medical doctors who had never met or worked with me before.”
The importance of a solid support system
Due to having huge support, belief, and encouragement from family and friends and continuously being able to prove people’s assumptions about her being a disabled doctor wrong, Whitehead emphasises that one should not be quick to judge a person with a disability but rather take a bit of time to get to know someone beyond their disability.
Moreover, Whitehead wishes to continue growing Zimele and make valuable contributions to other people with disabilities.
“Zimele successfully rehabilitated our first four amputees last year. It was very special to them to stand on their new prostheses,” she says.
“I wish to continue to grow Zimele nationally and my disability advocacy work so we can help more amputees and people with other disabilities too.”
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