The Current

Meet Rwanda's only female neurosurgeon who trained in Canada

When Dr. Claire Karekezi returns to her native Rwanda next month after training in Canada. She will be one of only five neurosurgeons — and the only woman — serving a population of 12 million people.

Dr. Claire Karekezi is keen to help improve her country's medical system with what she's learned

Claire Karekezi is a neuro-oncologist completing her certification at Toronto Western Hospital under its Greg Wilkins-Barrick chair in International Surgery. She is returning to her native Rwanda next month. (Submitted by The University Health Network)

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Dr. Claire Karekezi is going home.

The physician will return to her native Rwanda next month as the country's only female neurosurgeon.

For the past year, she's been completing a specialty in neuro-oncology at Toronto Western Hospital. It was the final stop for Karakezi on an educational journey that has spanned 16 years and six countries.

"That's what I've been doing my whole life, moving to new places and getting adjusted to new people, and that sort of prepared me to adjust myself [in Toronto]," she said to The Current summer host Mike Finnerty.

When she returns to Rwanda next month, she will be one of only five neurosurgeons — and the only woman — serving a population of 12 million people. 

Karekezi says working in a developing country with limited medical resources and expertise will be a daunting task, but she looks forward to the challenge.

"There is a lot of work to be done, but I am not discouraged. I think I will be able to help the other [neurosurgeons], and I believe we will make an impact in the future."

Growing up in the Rwandan capital or Kigali, Dr. Karekezi said she initially took to the sciences and dreamed of working at NASA and becoming an astronaut. But by the time she finished high school, her ambitions has shifted to a more grounded pursuit: medicine.

Success after surviving the genocide 

When Karekezi was 10 years old, long-simmering tensions between the Rwanda's Hutu ethnic majority and the minority Tutsis exploded into bloodshed. As many as 800,000 people died over 100 days in the spring of 1994.

Karekezi is reluctant to speak about the genocide, except to say she saw things that children should never have to see.

"As for any kid who grew up there during that period, [the genocide] affected us," she said. "Most of the kids lost their entire families, [but] they were able to come through that hardship and pick up themselves and become successful. That has been very inspiring."

Photographs of people who were killed during the 1994 genocide are seen inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum. An estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days during the genocide. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)

Karekezi lost aunts and cousins in the bloodshed, but everyone in her direct family survived when the family fled Kigali. Her schooling was disrupted during the genocide, but she was able to restart shortly afterwards and refocus on her studies.

Living through so much trauma has given her a unique perspective as she's started her medical career.

"When you think that you spend a whole day saving one life, and you think how in a blink of days so many people died with the whole world watching, I would say that's unfair. But the good thing is we came through that."

Inspired by the brain

She began her medical studies in Rwanda, but the possibilities of her career opened up before her when she studied at a hospital in Sweden through an exchange program. Her initial interest was in radiology but the exchange was over the summer, when most departments shut down their elective procedures. Neurosurgery was the only department running at full capacity, so she decided to take advantage.

Once she was performing surgery, she had no regrets about switching her focus.

"That was very inspiring, seeing the brain for the very first time," she said.

"I was amazed that you can open someone's head and navigate his brain, and actually save his life … I was like 'Wow!' This is amazing, and this is what I want to do."

Karekezi told Finnerty her first mentor was Dr. Jan Hillman, from the Department of Neurosurgery at the Linkoping Teaching Hospital in Sweden. She credits him for opening her eyes to the possibilities of neurosurgery and what she could accomplish in the field.

From Sweden, she moved back to Rwanda and then onto Morocco for five years with shorter stints in the U.K. and the U.S. along the way.

And then she came to Canada, which has been a very "good experience; making good friends —lifetime friends  — and surviving the winter," she said with a chuckle.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman.


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