KZN's first female maxillofacial surgeon speaks

16 October

  • There is no substitute for hard work, faith and perseverance;
  • Putting a smile on injured children's faces is the best part of my job;
  • If people drank less, and did not drink and drive, speed or engage in drag-racing, my job would be much easier;
  • I hope my story will inspire more women to make it in this fraternity


Dr Pranusha Ramlakhan, who has recently become KwaZulu-Natal's first female maxillofacial surgeon, hopes her superb achievement will encourage other women to believe in themselves, work hard, and reach for their own dreams.

Dr Ramlakha's feat has drawn congratulatory remarks from KZN Health MEC Ms Nomagugu Simelane, who has described her as an inspiration and "trailblazer" who must be emulated.

"We are extremely pleased and proud of what Dr Ramlakhan has achieved. It is women like her who keep breaking down barriers and pushing the envelope, to prove to all that, indeed, women are capable of achieving anything, and that no field should be regarded as the sole domain of men. We need more people like her," said MEC Simelane.

The Durban-born doctor, who works at King Edward VIII Hospital, says she wishes people did not abuse alcohol and drugs; and desisted from risky behaviour such as drunken driving and speeding, which are among the biggest contributors to road crashes, increasing the workload for people like her.

Maxillofacial surgery is a special type of dentistry, which involves an operation to correct a disease, injury or defect on the face, jaw or mouth.

Dr Ramlakhan says: "It is a specialty that combines surgical training with dental expertise to correct a wide spectrum of diseases, injuries, tumours, defects and deformities in the mouth, head, neck, face and jaw area. This includes bones and soft tissues of this region.

"We, at King Edward VIII Hospital, mainly see trauma patients who have sustained injuries from assaults, gunshot wounds and motor vehicle accidents. We also treat patients with adversely impacted teeth, cysts and tumors, as well as severe infections and their side effects. As a maxillofacial surgeon, you have consult with patients, diagnosing their conditions, plan surgery, and operate in theatre. We also render after hour service for emergencies."

Dr Ramlakhan holds a Bachelor's degree in Dentistry from the University of Western Cape; as well a Masters in Maxillofacial and Oral Surgery from University of Witwatersrand.

After completing her community service in the eThekwini district, she worked as a dental surgeon at the Department of Maxillofacial and Oral Surgery at King Edward VIII Hospital (she's been working at the hospital since 2006, but was appointed as a maxillofacial surgeon in April).

Reflecting on her professional journey and how she ended up in this largely male-dominated field, she said: "My interest in the medical field started early on, and during my university years I realized a special interest in surgery. After matriculating, dentistry was the perfect field for me to get into. During my fourth year of study, I used to shadow maxillofacial registrars to see the work they did. This sparked my interest in Maxillofacial and Oral Surgery. After completing my degree in dentistry, I was placed at the eThekwini District to complete my community service. Part of this rotation was at King Edward VIII Hospital, where I gained experience in surgery and my love for surgery was confirmed."

Thereafter, she was permanently employed at the Maxillofacial unit at KEH. While working at King Edward, she completed courses in acute cardiac life support, basic surgical skills, and advanced trauma life support - all of which geared her towards the maxillofacial specialty.

She describes the journey towards securing a registrar post as a long and difficult one.

"After completing my Maxillofacial Part 1 exams with the College of Medicine SA, I struggled to get a registrar post. Many years later, Oral Health services launched a programme to train registrars from KZN. I was interviewed for the post and was successful."

Although she's the first to admit that hers is a highly demanding job, the sense of reward and accomplishment that comes with it is second to none.

"It's a very demanding field, which means long hours in theatre as well as being on call at any hour of the day or night (holidays included).

"It requires you to be available on weekends and public holidays. As such, it means sometimes having to miss special life events."

She sees her achievement as one that has helped shatter the glass ceiling preventing women from making inroads and thriving in specialised medical fields, which are still male-dominated.

"Being a woman, it becomes particularly demanding as social norms dictate that women are the primary care givers, mothers, wives etc. But we are slowly trying to break these stereotyped roles - to show that working women can also have demanding careers such as in surgery, and have a family. As we promote this more and more, we hope that more women are encouraged to join the fraternity."

She's also very clear that she would never have done it alone, without her "faith in God (Lord Krishna), and the support of my husband and son."

She adds: "I missed some important special days and milestones along the way, but my family has been very understanding and supportive throughout. It takes a special man to put his wife's career first, and I am lucky to have such a husband!"

During the COVID-19 - induced hard national lockdown, emergency medical personnel around the country breathed a huge sigh of relief due to record low numbers of people admitted for accidents and trauma. This was widely believed to be due to a concurrent ban on the sale of liquor.

Dr Ramlakhan, too, wishes South Africans could review their relationship with alcohol, and embrace a generally more cautious and responsible approach to life.

She says: "I am faced with so many trauma patients on a daily basis. Some advice to members of the public that would lessen the burden on public service trauma and Maxillofacial units would be:

  • Don't consume alcohol
  • Don't drink and drive or fast driving
  • Seek medical attention as soon as you notice something is wrong - don't wait and hope it will disappear as it will only worsen the condition.

She draws a lot of satisfaction from putting a smile on people, especially traumatised little ones.

"As challenging as it is being a Maxillofacial surgeon, treating children is the most heartbreaking, but also most rewarding part of my job. It's wonderful seeing the impact on a child's life, and of course the huge smile and hugs after their recovery is an added bonus.

"During my training as a registrar, I encountered a patient - a young lady with a huge cancerous tumor in her lower jaw. She was extremely malnourished, and also COVID positive. She was admitted and readied up for surgery. Against all odds, we performed surgery on her. She stayed with us for three months as we rehabilitated her. This included a month in ICU, where her survival post-operatively was in doubt. It was heart-warming to see her walk out the hospital happy and bubbly; knowing we had helped change her life."

Dr Ramlakhan's short-term goal is to complete a Masters in public health management and, over the longer term, she wants to finish her fellowship in trauma.

Her message to someone who'd like to follow in her footsteps?

"Anything is possible when you believe in yourself! Follow your dreams. If maxillofacial surgery is your passion, then follow it. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise. I embarked on my registrar training with a 2-year old toddler - a journey which made climbing Kilimanjaro seem easier. However, with faith in God, Lord Krishna, my steadfast resolution and support from my husband, it was possible."

ENDS Issued by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health

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This page last edited on 18 October, 2022

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