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KZN surgeon pushes beyond rare disorder to further her studies and chase her goals

Dr Michelle Smith graduated with a PhD in Health Sciences from UKZN. Picture: Abhi Indrarajan

Dr Michelle Smith graduated with a PhD in Health Sciences from UKZN. Picture: Abhi Indrarajan

Published May 21, 2022

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A medical condition rendered KwaZulu-Natal surgeon Dr Michelle Smith (37) unable to practice as a working surgeon but this did not stop her from continuing to contribute to the field of surgery and furthering her studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Smith graduated with a PhD in Health Sciences (Surgery) from UKZN.

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“I am immensely proud of my academic achievement, especially as it adds new knowledge to a field that I am passionate about,” Smith said.

Just after qualifying as a surgeon in 2017, Smith contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder that causes the body’s immune system to attack the nerves.

“This disorder took away my ability to perform surgery due to the permanent nerve damage it caused, however, falling in love with research and getting this degree has taught me that I can still contribute to the surgical field, albeit in a different way,” Smith explained.

Smith is a specialist surgeon at Greys Hospital in Pietermaritzburg where she sub-specialises in critical care and also supports and teaches young researchers.

Her study identified risk factors for mortality and adverse events in patients undergoing emergency laparotomy for non-traumatic surgical conditions, “Identifying high-risk patients enables surgeons to employ strategies to ameliorate this risk,” she said.

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Dr Michelle Smith graduated with a PhD in Health Sciences from UKZN. Picture: Abhi Indrarajan

Smith’s study found that having comorbid chronic illnesses as well as active TB and HIV increased the chances of adverse outcomes in patients undergoing emergency laparotomy. Her findings also indicated physiological parameters as well as certain components of surgery that may attribute to an increased risk of mortality.

“I work full-time as a specialist in an academic hospital so finding time to dedicate to my PhD was not always easy, however, setting realistic timelines for various aspects of the course helped me stay focused,” she said.

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Smith lives in Howick with her partner Marike and their two dogs. They enjoy being outdoors and travelling around southern Africa.

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