Dr. Claire Karekezi, Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon, says being African and a woman won’t limit her

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BORN in 1982 and raised in Rwanda, Dr. Karekezi is a consultant neurosurgeon at the Rwanda Military Hospital in Kigali, and is also the country’s first neurosurgeon.

As a child growing up in Rwanda during the 1980s and ’90s, Claire Karekezi dreamed of becoming a doctor. But what she calls her “guiding star” has taken her far beyond that initial goal to join the ranks of what is perhaps medicine’s most demanding specialty.

The first female neurosurgeon in Rwanda

The first and only female neurosurgeon in Rwanda, Dr. Karekezi frequently calls upon young women to step out of fear and take on science. She believes today’s young girls can make it with passion and perseverance and increase their access and participation STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

“Do not let anybody tell you that it is impossible, you can achieve anything,” she said.

Dr. Karekezi summarises her trailblazing professional and personal development journey in only two sentences, saying: ““I received my MD degree from the University of Rwanda College of Medicine and Health sciences (2009) and completed my Residency in Neurosurgery from the Mohamed V University of Rabat/WFNS Rabat Training Center for African Neurosurgeons (2016).

“I was further involved in fellowship programs in the US and Canada, received the 2016 AANS International Visiting Surgeon Fellowship in Neurosurgery/ NeuroOncology at the Brigham and Women Hospital in 2016, and later completed a Clinical Fellowship in NeuroOncology and Skull Base Surgery at Toronto Western Hospital, University of Toronto in Canada (2017/2018).”

‘We grew up with survival instincts’ – Dr Karekezi

One would think it was such a short journey to stardom, but as we unpack it below, Dr. Karekezi’s career path has seen her shift from one university to another, one country to another, as she gained one skill after another leading to her current world-renowned expertise.

It was an epic journey for Dr. Karekezi which started at the Collège Saint André Nyamirambo High School in Rwanda, where she aced her diploma in Mathematics and Physics as a teenager.

The young Claire Karekezi grew up with a fondness for the sciences and a strong dream of becoming an astronaut at NASA. As she later told a Rwanda radio station, Dr. Karekezi’s career choices gradually shifted toward medicine by the time she completed high school in 1999. But before that, there was a terrible genocide to survive…

In 1994, Claire Karekezi was aged 10 when the ethnic tension between Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi tribes exploded into what is now known as the Rwandan genocide.

Over 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide in which the Tutsi minority group was systematically murdered across the east-African nation by the Hutu ethnic majority. More than two million refugees fled Rwanda, sparking a humanitarian crisis

“We grew up with fear, but we grew up with survival instincts — we have to push, we have to get through this,” Dr. Karekezi was to recall many years later while completing her neurosurgeon studies in Canada.

“It’s a feeling I cannot explain. Maybe I was born to help people,” she said.

Like many of her colleagues, the genocide interrupted her schooling and her family fled the capital city of Kigali for safety in the countryside. Karekezi was to eventually graduate from high school in 2001 in Kigali. The aspiring astronaut in her had by then melted away and in its place was an aspiring medical doctor.

Claire Karekezi enrolled with the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Rwanda in 2002, and that set off an exhilarating career path that had landed her in history books and made her a prominent figure in Surgery and Medical journals worldwide.

Opening someone’s head and navigating his brain

It was while at the University of Rwanda that Karekezi got a life-changing to travel to Linkonping Teaching University in Sweden on an internship tour that lasted six weeks. As she recounted over a decade later, it was in Sweden that Dr. Karekezi discovered her enthusiasm for neurosurgery, even though she had wanted to venture into radiology at first.

Claire Karekezi grew up with a fondness for the sciences and a strong dream of becoming an astronaut at NASA

During that exchange program in Sweden, Dr. Karekezi recalls that 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.

“I knew nothing about neurosurgery, I had no training in brain anatomy,” Karekezi concedes.

“My mentor and “father in neurosurgery,” Professor Jan Hillman granted me access to observe a brain tumor surgery,” she told a Kigali-based radio station in 2018.

“That was very inspiring, seeing the brain for the very first time. 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.

“This 2007 experience left me both intrigued and determined to work in that field. Professor Hillman saw this light in me,” she says of the Swedish doctor, calling him her “father in neurosurgery.”

Professor Hillman became her first mentor, explaining and demonstrating to Karekezi the intricacies of the brain and encouraging his protege to embrace the complex specialty and eventually practise it in Rwanda, where at the time there was not a single neurosurgeon.

And she has never looked back. In 2009, some seven years after enrolling at university, Dr. Karekezi earned her first degrees in medicine and surgery.

A month before graduation in 2009, Dr. Karekezi was accepted for a short neurosurgery program at Oxford University in the U.K. She found herself travelling overseas again, this time to the University of Oxford, where she observed many other neurosurgeon surgical operations at the university’s John Radcliffe Hospital.

It was another gruelling six weeks of observations and interactions with both Professors in the field, and patients.

Dr. Karekezi returned to Rwanda andworked as a general practitioner for almost a year and a half. Determined to follow her new dream, she kept emailing the head of the Rabat Reference Center for Training Young African Neurosurgeons in Morocco, seeking a spot in the program that had been set up under the auspices of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies.

She was finally accepted after securing government funding. In 2011 she found herself trekking to Morocco. There, she was to spend the next five years delving deeper into her newfound specialty of neurosurgery during her residency at the Mohamed V University of Rabat, Rabat Reference Center for Training Young African Neurosurgeons.

In 2013, Dr. Karekezi was given the Women in Neurosurgery award for her competence as a surgeon by fellow neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital.

Those five years in Morocco left Dr. Karekezi with a Master’s of Medicine in Neurosurgery degree, and tons of experience and finesse in the hair-raising profession.

She completed her Neurosurgical training at the Rabat Training Center for African Neurosurgeons, Mohamed V University of Rabat, World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies (Morocco), and graduated in 2016. In her final year, she was named chief resident.

“At the end, I was a neurosurgeon,” says Karekezi, who is fluent in French, English, Rwandan and Swahili, with some knowledge of Arabic from her time in Morocco.

This set her on a longwinded path to many fellowships in neurosurgery, mostly to top universities in the US. Beginning in 2016, Dr. Karekezi was the American Association of Neurological Surgeons International Visiting Surgeon Fellow at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical Center Teaching Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Before returning to Rwanda in July 2018, Karekezi completed a clinical fellowship in Neuro-oncology and Skull Base Surgery at the University of Toronto, Canada, where she practised at Toronto Western Hospital.

Dr. Karekezi’s emotional return home

Returning home 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, speaking to Rwanda media.

Returning home was the final stop for Dr. Karakezi on an educational journey that has spanned 16 years and six countries.

When she returned to Rwanda, she was 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.”

Since returning to Rwanda in 2018, Dr. Claire Karekezi has become an inspiration to young people interested in pursuing careers in STEM, especially to young girls.

While the task of being one of only five neurosurgeons serving a population of 12 million is daunting, Dr. Karekezi is dedicated to implementing what she has learned to improve the quality of health care in her country.

Putting relationships, marriage and motherhood on hold.

Right from high school two decades ago, Dr. Karekezi’s career choices have made her make huge sacrifices: years away from her family, moving from country to country, and putting relationships, marriage and motherhood on hold.

Still, she is philosophical about what she has missed out on. “I need to carry the dream to the end — and then I can think about settling.”

It seems Dr. Karekezi has finally settled down in her home country where she plays leading roles in the country’s key medical bodies. Dr. Karekezi is currently a consultant Neurosurgeon at Rwanda Military Hospital.

She also serves as the Chair of the African Women in Neurosurgery (AWIN) and is a member of multiple national and international neurosurgical societies, as well as an editor for a leading medical publication based in Switzerland.

Regarding how she was able to stand firm and follow her dreams, Dr. Karekezi says no dream is beyond achievement.

“I refuse to let being African and a woman be a limitation for me. There is no un-attainable dream.”

“Even though my story of being Rwanda’s first and only female Neurosurgeon broke the internet, I feel like there is still much to learn and accomplish as a young, (African) woman neurosurgeon. Each step all along my journey has been tough but achievable,” Dr. Karekezi reckons.

Her medical journey took time and demanded a lot of commitment from her, but Dr. Karekezi said her love and passion for the profession saw her surmount any challenges.

“It took time, but if you have the passion, and the perseverance to stick around, you make it for sure,” she noted. “To stick around you have to love it, according to the physician, and her journey was not that simple.

“There were a lot of challenges, when I left Rwanda. While here, I was working as a medical doctor with people who knew me, and then I had to go to a place I had never been before. It is like starting from zero,” she said.

“It required, getting people to know me, getting people to trust me, even though I had knowledge and skills, I would still feel frightened,” she added.

She hailed the role of mentors in the process.

“For anyone in science or not in science, doing what you love is the key, it is the first thing. I would not say that I had extra strength; I was a black woman and a foreigner in different countries.

“I was in the field that was dominated by men, so it was every time challenging, but because I loved it, was eager to be a neurosurgeon, I did not give up, I kept following my dream,” she emphasised.

“I think passion and perseverance is the key, you have to love it to stick around, if you do not love it then, you will not stick around,” she reiterated.

The woman of today is courageous

Dr. Karekezi reckons that today’s girl child can grab any challenges thrown at her, but society can play a key role in strengthening the resolve of such women change-makers.

“The woman of today is courageous, willing to follow their dream,” she said. “But girls need help, they need to be pushed, they need to be supported, we need more role models, we need more successful women to reach back to these young women,” she advised.

And while Karekezi insists that surviving the Rwandan genocide did not inspire her to become a doctor, she said it shaped her into the person she is today.

She lost cousins and aunts in the massacre — a 100-day period she is loathe to speak about in any detail.

“I always tell people that that’s what sort of made us who we are today as Rwandese people, because we grew up knowing that we cannot count on anyone but ourselves.

“So this kind of spirit kept me going, to do whatever it takes to get where I want to go,” she says. “I keep pushing because the genocide happened, the whole world was watching and no one did anything. But we came through that, we are a strong nation, and we have very brave people who have managed to do impressive things now.”

“I’m living my dream life” – Dr. Karekezi

Dr. Karekezi credits her persistence and tenacity with seeing others around her — including friends and family — pick themselves up after they lost loved ones.

“When you look at them you think, I have no reason to give up,” she said.

And she’s living the dream life. Asked what is it that continues to drive Dr. Karekezi, the 38-years-old medical fundi was clear that she has got the love of her life in her hands.

“It’s passion, it’s dedication. It’s not about money — I’m living my dream and I love what I do. This is something I can do. This is something I can bring back to Rwanda.”

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