Making a world of difference: Dr Mandiwanza – Ireland’s first female paediatric neurosurgeon

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By Agencies

WHEN Dr Tafadzwa (Taffy) Mandiwanza says she’s a paediatric neurosurgeon, people’s response is: ‘Oh my goodness! How do you manage, operating on children with brain and spinal injuries?’

But Mandiwanza — from Zimbabwe and Ireland’s first female paediatric neurosurgeon — says the work is inspiring. She’s amazed by the resilience of children.

“I find it fascinating. A child can go through a massive brain operation and within a few weeks they’ll have bounced back or be making huge gains in rehabilitation. An adult, going through the same procedure, would be slow to regain meaningful function.”

A consultant at Children’s Health Ireland, Temple Street Hospital, Mandiwanza arrived in Ireland aged 19, in 2000, to attend medical school at University College Cork. “My father had friends working in Cork, so he felt some level of comfort letting me travel abroad by myself for school.”

She found people curious and interested. “There weren’t too many immigrants at that time, so people were very curious about where I came from, how I spoke such good English — that was a common question. I got loads of invitations to people’s houses for dinner.”

Her mother was a nurse and from a young age Mandiwanza had found hospitals “intriguing”.

“I look up to my mum a lot. Hospitals and healthcare were always part of my life — we’d go to collect her from work.”

While she acknowledges the Irish health system has problems (“and things we can do better”), she says women in Ireland here have more health rights than do women in Zimbabwe.

“It’s a basic right for any pregnant Irish woman to get good maternity care, whereas in rural areas in Zimbabwe you mightn’t even see a nurse when you’re pregnant.”

She also sees a “vast gap” in screening services for women in her home country. “Cervical and breast screening are offered free to women in Ireland. There’s no national screening programme for these cancers in Zimbabwe.”

She doesn’t want to say Zimbabwe offers little or no support to women. “It basically boils down to what resources a country has, and, unfortunately, Zimbabwe doesn’t have the resources to do screening.

“Women there are restricted by lack of resources. You have little girls in rural areas or in high-density urban areas where families have to decide between schooling their child and paying the rent.”

Married to Rebabonye, a cardiologist from Botswana, they have three children, aged 14, 12, and 10. Childcare supports “definitely could be improved” in Ireland, she says. She herself has grappled with the question: ‘Do I take time off to mind my child at home?’ or ‘Do I go for career?’

Her husband and sister-in-law help out hugely. “We’ve had au pairs, crèches and in-house childcare. For immigrant women it’s harder — you don’t have the inbuilt village/extended family around you.”