By Kuria Kimani
Kenya has less than 40 neurosurgeons in total translating to approximately one neurosurgeon per 1.25 million people. The standard recommendation of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is at least one neurosurgeon for every 200,000 people. Hold on to that thought. Did you also know that of these, the country boasts only five female neurosurgeons? In this comprehensive article, WoK introduces the brilliant Dr. Sylvia Shitsama Nyamweya who holds the distinction as Kenya’s first female neurosurgeon, Brain and Spine Specialist. We will look into her personal life, academic background, career achievements and the journey that led her to neurosurgery.
Early Life and Family history
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Dr. Sylvia was born in Kakamega District Kenya circa December 1983 as the firstborn child in a family of four. Her dad was a lawyer. Her role as the eldest of her siblings without a doubt shaped her leadership skills from a very young age and had to lead her siblings by example both in academics and other spheres of life.
With her father’s influence, she grew up aspiring to be a lawyer although this would evolve and take a completely different form. Her younger brother was asthmatic and Sylvia would always accompany him to hospital. She would seize the opportunity to ask doctors and nurses questions about the medical profession which would later turn out to be her career field.
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Dr. Sylvia Early Education background
Sylvia’s schooling journey is one to admire and an inspiration to many. She successfully completed her primary school education at Mukumu Girls Primary School located in Khasoko, Shinyalu, Kakamega county, Western Kenya. It was during this stage that she became interested in neurosurgery when she began reading Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands and Think Big. She was admitted to Lugulu Girls High School situated in Kituni sub location, Misikhu location, Webuye division in Webuye constituency, Bungoma county where she excelled in the National exams. Sylvia secured a chance to pursue Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, MBChB, at the University of Nairobi from where she graduated in 2006.
Her journey to Higher Education
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University of Nairobi did not have a neurosurgery residency program at the time Sylvia completed her first degree in Medicine. This led to her pursuing an internship and seeking practical experience as she weighed on her options.
Early Career Journey
Dr. Sylvia began her career journey at the Kericho District Hospital where she was an intern for one year and then proceeded to be a medical officer at the Kajiado County Referral Hospital.
Pursuing a Neurosurgery Residency Programme and Further Education
Throughout this time, she still had the drive to pursue neurosurgery and luckily, the University of Nairobi was finally launching a Neurosurgery Residency Programme at the institution. In October 2008, she enrolled for the programme despite being dissuaded by naysayers who told her the programme was intensely rigorous and there was no woman who had successfully completed it.
The challenges she faced at the time was balancing work and parenthood as she welcomed her first child while undertaking the six year programme. To make it successfully to the programme end, she had a supportive system around her. These included her husband, a resourceful nanny, and her supportive family. In February 2015, she made history upon graduating as Kenya’s first female neurosurgeon.
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In 2019, she enrolled at the University of Toronto to pursue a Clinical Fellowship in General Neurosurgery with a focus in Spine and Skull Base Surgery. Moreover, she was awarded a CNS Foundation Women Leaders in Neurosurgery Scholarship that will see her pursue a course in Career Advancement & Leadership Skills for Women in Healthcare at Harvard Medical School.
Further Career Practice
Between January and December 2016, Dr. Sylvia was a tutorial fellow at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and later on progressed to be a lecturer in the Department of Surgery, School of Medicine. From 2017, she has been working as a Consultant Neurosurgeon at Sage Surgical Clinic located at KMA Centre’s 3rd Floor, Room 308. Most of Dr. Sylvia’s neurosurgical procedures cater to spinal and brain complications that result from birth defects like spina bifida and hydrocephalus, cancers, and road accidents. She has also worked at the Kenyatta National Hospital and Thika Level 5 Hospital.
Dr. Sylvia Shitsama previously served as a member at the Kenya Medical Association Sacco (KMA).
Life Beyond the Hospital
Dr. Sylvia is a key figure in creating awareness in preventing the conditions she addresses in her neurosurgical practice. Some of these include early diagnosis and treatment of cancer and adhering to road safety measures. Being one of only two female neurosurgeons in the country, she is also keen to mentor girls and women to take the route less troden and link them to local and global opportunities. She said in an interview, “When I was studying neurosurgery, I didn’t have any women role models to look up to or approach for advice. This was a major challenge. That’s why I want to be there for others now. I want them to know that if I did it, they also can.”
Dr. Sylvia was named Top 40 under 40 women in Kenya in 2016 and again the following year in 2017. This is an award that was first awarded in 2008 to honour women who achieve outstanding feats in various economic spheres such as social entrepreneurship, sports, law, medicine, and creatives. Making it to the list twice is a remarkable achievement given that it is heavily contested.
One of Dr. Sylvia’s widely-read publications is titled CHOROID PLEXUS COAGULATION IN INFANTS WITH EXTREME HYDROCEPHALUS OR HYDRANENCEPHALY.
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