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Dr Sanelisiwe Balfour, affectionately known as Dr Nellie, is a medical doctor currently specialising in paediatrics. She chats to Go Hustle writer Ondela Mlandu about her deep sense of pride in being able to change the trajectory of a child’s life – simply by doing her job. But it’s not all roses. Here’s how she deals with prejudice in the workplace…

Dr Nellie has a passion for purpose

Dr Nellie is passionate about child health because she believes that most societal ills are caused by adults. “[It’s] the result of their childhood and what they experience during their upbringing… Poverty leads to malnutrition and subsequently poor health as an adult; abuse results in adults with mental health issues,” she says.

Want to get into the medical field?

Heads up, girls! Apply yourself in school subjects such as maths, science and biology, then apply for medical school. “The medical fraternity was known as quite a male-dominated field, but now we’re seeing more women and more women of colour breaking barriers as the faces of medicine,” she says.
After graduating from medical school, every graduate goes through two years of compulsory paid internship, then community service, after which they can choose which path they wish to take, whether it be medical research or clinical work with patients.
Her best advice? “Job shadow in a hospital. It’s a high-paced, demanding job. One needs to take a look into the everyday workings of a hospital if they wish to go this route. Research the different medical schools around the country and look into their academic programmes as they do differ with regards to the duration of the study and their curriculum.”

READ MORE: Aesthetician Dr Zama Tladi Explains How She Grew Her Start-Up 

Overcoming prejudice in the line of duty…

“The medical fraternity has always been more of a male-dominated field – especially the surgical disciplines,” says Dr Nellie. “It’s within these disciplines that women do experience a difficult time, more so than female doctors in non-surgical disciplines, due to the misogyny that exists and is allowed to thrive amongst the doctors, who are mostly men. Nowadays this is slowly improving and I think it can only further improve as more women are taking up space in these workspaces and further mentoring younger female doctors.”
She too experienced prejudice (and sometimes still does) when she started out. “[As] a black female, a lot of patients and some colleagues assumed I wasn’t a doctor and was a nurse. Some assumed I was not competent to care for them and requested white doctors instead of me. One very frustrating moment was being asked by numerous patients to ‘call the doctor’ after introducing myself to them and stating that I was their doctor! As a senior doctor now, I still [experience] it when my white male students are referred to as ‘doctor’ in my presence and I’m referred to as ‘nurse’,” she says.
How did she overcome this? By remembering that she has a job to do and her main responsibility lies with making sure patients receive the treatment they deserve. “I also overcame it by voicing and challenging, and in this way educating, anyone who displayed any type of prejudice towards me and my colleagues. Prejudice essentially stems from ignorance,” she says.

A word from the wise…

1/ “The one leadership lesson I’ve learnt is that one should speak up for those who don’t have a voice. Once you empower the voiceless, they feel more confident doing the same, and this ultimately leads to power in numbers.”
2/ “Go ahead and do it, even if you feel scared, small, unworthy, uncertain. Because someone is watching you and you have no idea what kind of an impact you’re going to make.”

Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” is a must-read!

“She’s such a leader,” says Dr Nellie. “I think more people view her as an inspiration and her husband was the one who was the leader of the free world! She makes me feel like I matter and that’s because someone who looks like me is making such an impact in so many people’s lives. Representation matters.”

Stop comparing yourself to others

“We’re all running our own race and, ultimately, all we can compete with is ourselves. I practice self-care by eliminating as much negativity as possible to protect my inner peace, even if this means being selective about which people you keep around, which Instagram accounts you follow, and even the types of programmes you watch,” she says.

Connect with Dr. Nellie

Connect with Dr. Nellie on Instagram @nel_bal4. She’s always willing to lend an ear!

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