While two other ladies are currently in training, Cape Town-based Dr Farzana Cassim is South Africa’s first – and only – female surgeon competent in robotic surgery. She caught up with Maryam Makwanda to share her story.
Cassim completed her Urology training at Groote Schuur Hospital in 2014, and successfully completed her MMed in Urology in 2015. Today, she is a Urology Consultant at Stellenbosch University.
“I have a passion for seeing patients and fixing things. I’m very hands-on, so surgery allows you that. I specialise in urology specifically because I find it so interesting,” she said, explaining that her field entails a wide range of activities which make it exciting.
“There’s stonework, there’s robotic surgery there’s, prostate work, there’s reconstructive paediatrics, female urology … There’s so much that you can do that no two days are the same. No two patients are the same and you are constantly on your toes,” she said.
For the country’s only female surgeon who is competent in robotic surgery, Cassim certainly has her hands full. However, that doesn’t make her experience any less exciting.
Hold up – what is robotic surgery?
Robotic surgery refers to surgical procedures performed with the use of robotic technology. Robotically assisted surgery was created to let doctors perform open surgery by overcoming the constraints of existing minimally invasive surgical procedures.
Tygerberg Hospital launched its da Vinci surgical robotic programme in February 2022 – the first of its kind in Africa. The launch was hailed as a catalyst in addressing the Department of Health’s backlog and promised to speed up surgical procedures.
For the first and only female to have participated in the training, Cassim said “I was very grateful that my HoD put me forward as one of the eight doctors to be trained because everyone’s clamouring for it. It’s a phenomenal opportunity and it makes surgery so much easier and more fun”.
In Cassim’s own words, “laparoscopic assisted robotic surgery is minimally invasive. It’s keyhole surgery where we make tiny little cuts on the patient’s abdomen. We insert our instruments and do our surgery”.
She also explained the difference between traditional and contemporary methods: “So, with traditional laparoscopy, we would stand next to the patient. We’re actively moving the instruments at the bedside whereas with robotic surgery we attach everything and then the surgeon actually moves over to a console”.
“It is a phenomenal experience because there’s ten times zoom in a 3-D field so it feels like you’re literally inside the patient’s abdomen and then you move the instruments using little instruments that are extensions of your fingers. The instruments are now moving on your behalf essentially and what that allows is for us to get into very tiny little spaces with amazing vision,” she explained.
As a pioneer in her field, it comes as no surprise that South Africa’s first – and only – female surgeon who is competent in robotic surgery finds it necessary to strike a balance between work and time off. Whether this means reading books or entertaining her daughter, she must take a break.
“I am also a wife,” she said, “and mom to a very crazy little girl who keeps me extremely busy. Fun, at the moment, is mostly playing on the robot and hanging out with my family. I’m trying to chase that work-life balance that seems to elude us all! I’m a voracious reader, so I spend any other free time reading. Travelling is probably our other favourite pastime.”
Adding to her burden at work are the challenges that come with being a pioneering woman in a male-dominated space, she said. Learning the necessary tools to adapt, along with having encouraging supporters, has helped Cassim in her journey.
“When you learn more, you realise how little you actually know and how much you still need to know. Constantly learning and keeping up with things is definitely an ongoing challenge and I hope I’ll be able to continue challenging myself for the rest of my life,” said Cassim.
This may be an epic first of many others for Cassim.