Zim teen mom now surgeon in America; she tells her story

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Interview by Robert Tapfumaneyi

While for many, teenage pregnancy could be the end of the world for them, the story is different with 18-year-old Praise Matemavi.

Now 38, the daughter of a Seventh Day Adventist Pastor broke her parents’ hearts when she became a mother at a tender age.

It has however taken great strength of character for her to turn around her story into a perfect example of how one can change her circumstances into an inspiring tale.

Praise Matemavi (PM) completed her multivisceral transplant surgery fellowship at University of Nebraska Medical Centre. She graduated from Michagan State College of Osteopathic Medicine and did her general surgery residency at New York Presbyterian Queens Hospital.

She is also author of “Lessons for my Daughter: Adapted from life experience”, a guide she wrote for her daughter and avid reader, runner, blogger and an advocate for teenage mothers.

Our Reporter Robert Tapfumaneyi (RT) caught up with the US based transplant surgeon to hear her life story.

RT: How can you describe your early life back here in Zimbabwe?

Praise Matemavi (PM): I was born in Chitungwiza. I think it was Seke actually and raised all over. We moved to Mufakose shortly after I was born and then we moved to Bulawayo to Solusi Adventist University where my father did his schooling as a pastor.

After he finished there in 1988, we moved to Old Highfields in Harare. I loved the freedom of living in a high-density suburb. As kids, we would go alone to Mastones (Highfield), which was the shopping centre there. I remember playing nhodo, mahumbwe, pada, raka raka, and bhora like no one’s business. Those were truly the good old days. I went to Chipembere primary school for a short time and then transferred to Highlands Adventist School, a private school in Highlands.

I remember having to wake up at 4:30 in the morning when my dad was away at Helderberg College in South Africa and it was just me and my mom at home for those few months. My mom and I would get onto a Kombi that would get us into town and then we would get another Kombi to get us to Highlands. At times we would have to walk quite a distance. It was so important for my mom for me to go to that school.

After 2 years, she got over it and transferred me to Southerton Primary School. I was there for 5th Grade first term and then we moved to Cranborne Park and I moved schools once again to Queensdale Primary school were I completed 5th grade and 6th grade.

For 7th Grade, I was sent to boarding school in Gweru up until Form 2.

At the end of Form 2, we moved to Michigan, USA. We moved in December in the middle of winter. I had never seen snow in my whole life, it was quite an experience. Never got used to the cold that’s why I live in the South now!

RT: I understand you had a child much too early in your life. At what age were you married or it was an arranged marriage against your will, please share what led to that?

PM: Yes, I got pregnant with my daughter when I was 18 years old. I was not married at the time; it was one of the dark periods of my life. I am sure you can understand how our culture is. I am a Pastor’s daughter and at the time, I felt as though I had committed such a huge sin and that weighed heavily on me. Girls my age were having abortions but I just could not do that.

I had disappointed my parents and embarrassed them. I thought in order to fix the problem, I should go ahead and get married. At that time I felt that it would make the embarrassment less for my family because at least I would be married. I ended up enduring an abusive marriage; abusive physically, mentally, emotionally. I finally had the courage to leave the marriage. At that time, I was completely broken, I was an emotional wreck with very low self-esteem. I was a 23-year-old mom with a 4 year old and 2 year old who still dreamt of becoming a surgeon. When my daughter was a year old, I enrolled in nursing school. So, at this time I was working full time as a cardiac nurse for a year before going back to school.

When I returned to school, it was to work on all my prerequisites for medical school. I did not have a counsellor or adviser. So I did my research on the internet and found all the medical schools that would accept me without biochemistry or genetics. This is because I had a timeline for myself and taking biochemistry and genetics would push me back a year. I was not having it. My goal was to complete medical school by 29 come rain come sunshine. Yes, I had a later start than most people, but now I also have older kids that are independent.

I had a goal of doing all my prereqs within 2 semesters. I have to say that was the most difficult period of my academic life, more difficult than my transplant surgery fellowship which was super hard!

I signed up for Biology and Lab, General Chemistry and Lab at Lake Michigan College and then Organic Chemistry and Lab as well as Physics and Lab at Southwestern Michigan College.

RT: With all this studying, how did you manage your day?

PM: My day often started at 6 am. I would pack up my kids and take them to daycare and then drive 25 minutes to LMC, take Bio and Chem and then around noon leave and drive 40 minutes to SMC and take physics and organic chemistry. I had a very supportive manager at work who gave me a weekend alternative position. As an RN, I could work every weekend two 12 hour shifts and then one 8 hour shift every other week.

It was perfect for my school schedule. Often times on weekdays I would be done with classes between 5pm and 9pm depending on whether I had lab. I had the most supportive parents and at times they would pick up my kids from day care for me if they were not working and other times I would go straight to day care after classes. I would then get home, get them ready for bed and spend 3-4 hours studying and doing my assignments, which put me in bed by 1am. That was my life taking 18 credits of sciences.

That April I took the MCAT. I had not completed the courses required as I was taking all the tested sciences concurrently. By the grace of God, I did well on the MCAT and that summer, I applied to medical school. I still had one huddle, I had an associate degree in nursing and needed to figure out a way to get a bachelor’s degree before medical school commenced in June of the following year. Siena Heights University has a campus at LMC, I went to talk to an adviser there and told her I needed to get a bachelors degree in a year and showed her my transcripts from LMC and SMC. She told me it was impossible but I would not take No for an answer. So, I asked to speak to her director. I sat down with the senior adviser who told me that I needed 60 credits to get a bachelors degree. This was in early August of 2005. I told her I could do it! She worked up a hybrid plan for me with weekend and online courses and I completed 2 years worth of classes in 2 semesters and started medical school end of June 2006. I loved medical school and I was a sponge. I had the support of my family. That is how I was able to go through medical school raising 2 small kids.

RT: For most of the young girls, that could have been the end of their dreams what kept you going?

PM: My faith in God and my belief in myself kept me going through the difficult times. Giving up on my dream was not an option. There are times when it was hard to even get out of bed but I kept going. One foot in front of the other, one moment at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time. The storms in life do not last forever, remember that.

RT: Let me take you back a bit, how many are you in your family and growing up, how was family life?

PM: I am the youngest of 2 girls. My sister is 3.5 years older than me. We used to fight a lot when we were kids but got much closer in our late teens. I grew up in a nuclear family with both parents who were extremely attentive to us. We moved a lot because my father was a pastor and then the President of the East Zimbabwe Conference which belongs to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was brought up very much a church girl. I love the Lord and have always strove to develop a deeper relationship with Him. I have made a lot of mistakes so far in my life but I know God’s grace is sufficient for me. That is what makes me get up and carry on despite all the obstacles I have faced.

RT: How did you end up in America?

PM: We moved to America when I was 14. The sole reason was for me and my sister to have more opportunities. My parents knew that coming to America would open up the world to my sister and I and we could achieve our life goals. So you can imagine the heartbreak when they gave everything up for their kids and one of the kids comes home in her first year of college and announces she is pregnant. My parents gave up a very comfortable life in Zimbabwe where we had a nice 4 bed-roomed house in a great neighbourhood with servant quarters, a maid and grounds keeper as well as a driver.

To come the US where it was cold to the bone and they had to start from the bottom, they took menial jobs and living in a 2 bedroom apartment on a University campus. They had done all that for my sister and I, so the guilt weighed heavily on me when I became pregnant at 18.

RT: What led you to choose such a demanding career?

PM: I was inspired to do transplant when I was in medical school. I always knew I wanted to be a surgeon, I just did not know what kind. A professor mentioned to me that liver transplant was one of the coolest surgeries he had ever seen after he had seen me reading the book, “Walk on Water” by Michael Ruhlman, which focuses on paediatric cardio thoracic surgery. I had just read “King of Hearts: The true story of the Maverick who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery” by G. Wayne Miller, remember I was obsessed with the heart at this point.

After that conversation, I found a book by the father of liver transplantation Thomas Starzl, “The Puzzle People” and from then on I was hooked. I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. One of my most favourite surgeries is a multivisceral transplant where you transplant the liver, pancreas and small bowel all at once and when you finish sewing the blood vessels and open them up, it is like a beautiful flower blossoming. There is nothing like it! I feel that as transplant surgeons, we are intermediates between death and life. It is an extremely humbling profession, and very rewarding.

RT: Would you consider coming back one day and working in Zimbabwe?

PM: Yes, absolutely, I would love to. In fact, I wish to be able to come to Zimbabwe and collaborate with surgeons/urologists and nephrologists in developing a kidney transplant programme for living donor kidney transplants so that our people do not have to go out of the country for that service. I am hopeful that one day it will be a reality.

RT: Looking at the Zimbabwean health sector from what you have heard or been told by colleagues in the sector, do you think the government is doing enough to promote health for all?

PM: Right now with the healthcare system, how it is I believe there is a lot of work to be done. When the general economy is in shambles, the health care system will not thrive. The health care system is really a reflection of the overall state of the country.

In action, Dr Praise Matemavi (left)

RT: On your family life, I understand you are now married, how do you manage the long hours at work and being a wife/mother?

PM: My kids are older now. So, they do not require my constant attention. I have an amazing husband who makes it possible for me to live my dream. It can be difficult because a surgeon’s schedule is very unpredictable when on-call but when you have a supportive partner, it makes life so much easier. I am a big planner and I still keep a paper planner and write everything down. I set three-month goals and monthly goals first and then every Sunday I set my weekly goals. They are very specific goals with a clear plan. Sometimes when on call, I am super busy and operating all day on Sunday for instance. So, I do not plan until Monday.

Planning is actually relaxing for me. I have a great administrative assistant at work who manages my work schedule, which is great. Now that I am done with training, I am able to focus on my health and fitness. In training, there were times when I worked more than 100 hours a week because of the nature of the job. Often I did not have time to exercise consistently.

RT: What are your parents and sibling up to now?

PM: My sister is a nurse practitioner and lives in California. My mother died a few years ago from triple negative inflammatory breast cancer which is a type of breast cancer that is very aggressive and disproportionately affects women with African ancestry. My daddy is a chaplain at an Adventist hospital in California and is remarried to a wonderful woman who takes amazing care of him and is a wonderful addition to our family.

RT: Going back to early life, if you have been given a chance, what would you like to change and probably do better?

PM: When I look back at my life, I see God’s hand in everything. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes, but who doesn’t? I have lived a great life. At 38 years, I am living my best life. No regrets. I have been fortunate to always be the kind of person that does not look to other people for validation or approval. I do what I feel is right for me. Knowing all that I know now, all the experiences in my life have shaped the beautiful, strong, hard working, determined, powerful woman that I am today. My motto is to live MY life, MY way, MY own terms. It has served me very well thus far!

RT: What is one thing you would like to do to assist/ or help the girl child in Zimbabwe?

PM: One of my 5 year goals is to start a nonprofit that helps the girl child in Zimbabwe with resources for education and work with those who are already doing the ground work to stop child marriages. Girls just need a chance and they will excel. We know that when we educate a women, we educate a community. Women are born leaders and just given the opportunity, we can build our country back to the beautiful, prosperous country that it once was. Actually even better than before.

RT: Lastly your message to teen moms back here in Zimbabwe.

PM: My message to teen mom’s: you made a mistake, so what! No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes. Pick yourself up and be a boss babe. Building a beautiful life and empire for you and your kids. Take the obstacles in your life and use them as building blocks for an amazing life. Have a vision for your life and set specific goals with deadlines to achieve those goals. Trust in God and believe in yourself. Have confidence, be brave. You are amazing and you are worthy. You can do anything if you set your mind to it. You have to be willing to work day and night to achieve your dreams.

RT: Thank You for sharing your life experience with us.

PM: Thank YOU.