29 April 2022 | Story André Damons
Dr Asha Malan
Dr Asha Malan, Head of the division for Vascular Surgery in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS), is the first woman vascular surgeon to head an Academic Unit in South Africa and the youngest Head of Vascular Surgery.

Dr Asha Malan, Head of the division for Vascular Surgery in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS), is not only one of just seven qualified female vascular surgeons in the country; she is also the first female vascular surgeon to head an academic unit in South Africa and the youngest Head of Vascular Surgery yet.

Dr Malan says she is honoured to represent women in the field of Vascular Surgery – a historically male-dominated field. One of her main objectives now is to attract more women to this field. In 2020, she was simultaneously appointed the Acting Head of the Department for General Surgery when Dr Nicholas Pearce became the head of the Universitas Academic Hospital COVID-19 Task team. 

“To be very honest – I had not previously thought about this (being the first female to head a unit for Vascular Surgery). I have always been of the opinion that if I achieve something in life, it should be because I worked hard enough for it and was blessed with God-given opportunities.  This was one of the life lessons taught to me by my two amazing parents. 

“It is an absolute privilege to be in this position at such a young age. I have been in the fortunate position where hard work indeed paid off and to a large extent, I was incredibly lucky. I believe my age counts in my favour – I am keen to learn (which is a daily exercise) and take on new opportunities. I am still ‘naïve’ enough to dream big and market my dream of offering state-of-the-art vascular surgical care for all,” says Dr Malan.  

Passion for Vascular Surgery
According to her, she has been granted opportunities to develop her skills by visiting units in other countries including Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. Later this year she is off to the Netherlands, France and the US to build on this and teach these skills locally. 

Dr Malan is passionate about vascular surgery and calls it one of the most beautiful types of surgery. She decided to become a medical doctor at school when her Biology teacher, Mrs Em Volschenk, triggered an appreciation for the workings of the human body.

It is her obsessive and perfectionist personality that attracted her to vascular surgery. The love to fix things, she calls it.

“I have always gained great joy from making something cleaner, neater and better. Medicine, and more in particular, surgery, provides you with the absolute privilege to do so for the human body. Vascular surgery is one of the most beautiful types of surgery. It is neat and clean, but at the same time challenging. It provides the opportunity to perform surgery on any part of the body and develop your surgical skills. 

“In addition, it makes you calm and comfortable in high-stress situations.  The most tiring part of vascular surgery is, however, not the physical strain nor the hours, but the intense planning it requires – it is in some aspects like the engineering of surgery – you sometimes have to come up with solutions to problems that no textbook will contain. It is currently one of the fastest growing surgical subspecialties worldwide due to the innovation happening within the field. It is a way of thinking and I love every moment,” states Dr Malan.

She is well aware of the responsibility that comes with this important position and feels honoured to pave the way forward. Says Dr Malan: “I am currently one of only two female consultant surgeons in the Department of General Surgery and I strongly believe we bring a unique perspective. We also have a particular leadership style that is inclusive and encouraging – contributing to an environment where others can grow and strengthen the Department.”

Not many women in surgery
According to Dr Malan, surgery historically has a bad name due to the hours and demands of the job. Surgeons need to be available almost all the time – a schedule that fails to conform to the traditional expectations of women. This is even more so for vascular surgery, as many of our patients require emergency care that does not respect “working hours”. On the other hand, says Dr Malan, she believes most women possess the ability to multitask efficiently.

“Not only can we do a number of things at once, but can also do them well. Females have mastered the art of balancing the demands of both their work- and personal-lives more and more and society is generally more receptive to this as well. This provides a definite advantage to not only function, but flourish in the field of surgery and vascular surgery.”

The first step to get more women involved in this field, says Dr Malan, is to show it can be done.  Females are featuring in surgical leadership roles worldwide on an increasing front and prominent role models are key to igniting interest and self-belief. 

Harvard University Surgical Leadership Programme
Dr Malan graduated from the Harvard University Surgical Leadership Programme in April this year and says it was an amazing experience to liaise with colleagues in leadership roles within their respective surgical departments across the globe. It was an honour to represent the University of the Free State in this capacity.

According to her, Prof Francis Petersen, UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor, was instrumental in retaining her for the university after she qualified as a vascular surgeon. She received offers from other universities and private practice, but was keen to stay on as she envisaged a career in academics. “I had a dream of building a nationally recognised quality Vascular Surgery Unit that not only excels in clinical service delivery, but also in undergraduate- and postgraduate-training – this vision was already developing as we performed the first complex endovascular aortic repair in a state hospital in South Africa in 2019. Prof Petersen made time to listen to my dream and initiated the process for me to start realising it.”

She would like to give credit to her predecessors, particularly Prof Renald Barry who has been a mentor to her and with whom she had the privilege of operating until last year. In addition, she would like to thank her colleagues in the Department of Surgery and Vascular Surgery, who continue to inspire her every day.

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