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The cycle of violence needs to be broken, says trauma surgeon

Dr Deidré McPherson, a Discovery Foundation Award recipient, hopes to carve a career in academic trauma surgery and help train more surgeons in this field

‘Trauma surgery is my passion and I am very happy that this Discovery Foundation Award has given me the opportunity to complete my research,’ says Dr Deidré McPherson.
‘Trauma surgery is my passion and I am very happy that this Discovery Foundation Award has given me the opportunity to complete my research,’ says Dr Deidré McPherson.
Image: Supplied/Discovery Foundation

Dr Deidré McPherson is a trauma surgeon working on the front lines in Cape Town, one of the most violent cities in the world. With her Discovery Foundation Award, she hopes to carve a career in academic trauma surgery and help train more surgeons in this field.

McPherson, a qualified general surgeon, received a Discovery Foundation Award in 2018 to sub-specialise in trauma surgery. In 2020, she received an Academic Fellowship Award from the Discovery Foundation to do her PhD in trauma surgery at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital.

Her chosen field of study focuses on the need for skills in diagnosing and managing all trauma conditions, and in particular on achieving better outcomes. Her goal is to publish research that will have a lasting impact on patient care and post-operative outcomes, and help change policy and practice towards this end.

She laughs when asked if she has a strong stomach. “Yes, I do. My friends and family often wonder how I deal with the severity of the trauma I see, from motor vehicle accidents to incidents of gang violence, on a regular basis. Of course, it can be upsetting, but you get used to it.”

It’s a job that takes a lot out of you, but she says she wouldn’t want to do anything else. SA needs more trauma specialists, as they are experts in managing multi-system trauma injury, and in the specialised critical care of trauma patients. 

A clear vision of the future — at the age of seven

“There was a weekly booklet called How my body works and I could not wait for it to arrive on Fridays. I never doubted that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine, and this was truly the beginning of my interest in biology and science. Fortunately, my parents nurtured it throughout my primary and high school career.”

Born in Bellville, Cape Town, McPherson completed her schooling at The Settlers High School in Parow. Her father was a lecturer of geography at the University of the Western Cape, and her mother a biology subject adviser for the Western Cape education department. 

McPherson studied medicine at Stellenbosch University. During her community service year in Atlantis on the Cape Flats, she witnessed trauma every day and realised she did not have the necessary surgical skills to save lives.

“This stimulated my interest in trauma and motivated me to pursue a career in general surgery and to become a trauma surgeon, which has indeed been one of my earliest life goals. I specialised in general surgery at the University of Cape Town, completed my fellowship in surgery in 2017, and also obtained a master’s in medicine.”

Breaking boundaries in a male-dominated field

There have been a few obstacles along the way, she admits. “It’s a male-dominated field, though I have been lucky with the three surgeons under whom I trained, who were great. There are six female trauma surgeons now, as opposed to about 19 male surgeons. The hours are terrible, and we have to deal with gender-based violence as well as gang violence,” says McPherson.

Is she ever scared? “There is a high level of security where I work and I quite simply treat all patients as respectfully as I can,” she says.

She says the high rate of repeat cases can be discouraging, as is the lack of recognition that trauma doctors receive. “The cycle of violence needs to be broken and I would like to get involved in programmes dealing with that one day.”

But right now, between working and studying, she doesn’t have much time to do the things she enjoys: reading, playing the piano, visiting museums and archives. But she hopes there will be time for hobbies again.

“Trauma surgery is my passion and I am happy that this Discovery Foundation Award has given me the opportunity to complete my research. This will allow me to carve a career in the field of academic trauma surgery, to help train other trauma surgeons, and to be involved with future research in the same field.”

This article was paid for by the Discovery Foundation.

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