Studying to become a doctor during a pandemic is no joke. Ask future #HealthcareHero Simphiwe Phungula, a fifth-year medical student with big dreams for the future.
She’s working on an international study exploring the impact of COVID-19 on students’ behaviour..

Simphiwe Phungula is a fifth-year medical student at the University of KwaZuluNatal and part of the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation family. She has big plans to improve healthcare in rural areas and is currently doing a study with an international university on how COVID-19 is affecting students’ behaviour.

Local student gains international experience

In 2019, the 23-year-old spent some time in Ghana. “I was selected to be an exchange student in Ghana by an international medical student exchange partnership called GEMx. I did an elective in obstetrics and gynaecology at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital,” she says. “I acquired new skills and knowledge and observed the differences and similarities in the way the speciality is practiced in both countries.”

The experience bolstered her resolve to bring highly skilled specialists to rural areas. “I continue to look for sponsors to do more electives in other African countries because I believe we can learn a lot from one another. I want to bring such skills, knowledge and expertise back to my community.”

Young champion of women’s health
Simphiwe is passionate about women’s reproductive health. “I want to raise more awareness regarding sexual health in my community,” she says.

“Talking about reproductive and sexual health is almost taboo in our communities. This allows avoidable conditions, such as unwanted pregnancy, cervical cancer and HIV, to continue. It all starts with awareness, like making sure all women know that they should regularly do Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer.”

Parents shaped Simphiwe’s worldview
“I was born in KwaNongoma and raised in kwaHlabisa. These are both rural areas far north of Durban,” Simphiwe shares. “My parents worked very hard to send me to the best schools they could afford. The first time I went to a boarding school, I was only seven years old, doing grade two in a school that was in a completely different province from home and learning in a language that was
new to me – Afrikaans.”

“At the time, we didn’t even have a home of our own, so that’s when I realised how important I was to my parents and that I owed it to them to do the best I could wherever life took me. Growing up with such parents shaped me into the responsible and level-headed human being I believe myself to be.”

For the love and safety of children
Simphiwe is also passionate about keeping children safe. “I am certain that I was called to do something big for children in my lifetime. I plan on opening a shelter for abandoned and orphaned children, where they can feel the warmth and love that I had from my parents growing up,” she says.

“Many of the menaces in society are adults who grew up in dysfunctional homes or were exposed to dysfunctional behaviour somewhere in their childhood. Children are shaped by their experiences and are also the future of the nation, so we should protect them.”

During school holidays, Simphiwe helps learners with their maths homework. “One of the many things that keep me going when I face hurdles is that a young child from my community, where teenage pregnancy and drugs are rife, is looking up to me, seeing that it is possible to rise above the community that you come from,” she says.

A voice for the voiceless
Simphiwe has big plans for her future. “I would love to work for the World Health Organization and have influence over their making of policies and guidelines. I want to co-ordinate the standard of healthcare in South Africa in accordance with the rest of the world, especially developed countries,” she says.

“I believe having me, a South African born and bred in the rurals, at the highest body of healthcare regulation in the world would give me a greater voice to advocate for developing countries. I want equal distribution of access to healthcare facilities and resources between the rich and poor and having such a platform will allow me to be a voice for the voiceless.”

Coping with COVID-19
With only three semesters to go before obtaining her medical degree, how is she coping with the disruption of coronavirus disease 2019? “In all honesty, I’ve had better days – we all have – and the sudden and unexpected changes in the world as we know it has taken its toll on my mental health,” she says.

“Thanks to Umthombo’s partnership with
Syked psychologists, I’ve had my own personal psychologist assigned to me, keeping my mental health in check whenever I need her. Umthombo is  working hard to keep us afloat during a time where everyone is affected by the pandemic in one way or another.”

Despite staying at home, Simphiwe is still striving to make a difference. “I am currently working on a study with members of the GEMx Student Ambassador Network in partnership with Thomas Jefferson University. The study is aimed at exploring the behaviour changes and shared experiences of students around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.

“I’m spending a lot of my time reading novels and other books because I rarely have time for that in my normal life since I started my degree. I’m studying less than I do when I’m at school, but I’m making sure that I stay on top of my game by reading frequently.”



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