In the bustling corridors of UKZN, one medical student stands out not just for her academic excellence, but for her incredible resilience in the face of adversity. Ms Nokubonga Sabela is a young woman with oculocutaneous albinism (visual impairment) with nystagmus. She has defied the odds to excel in her medical studies with the help of a ground-breaking assistive device, the Prodigi Connect.
The device was donated by the UKZN Foundation through the University’s Disability Support Unit (DSU). The device is a combination of a tablet with specialised software and a stand that enables her to magnify and read textbooks and notes with ease. It has also significantly reduced the strain on her eyes, often caused by reading textbooks with shiny pages for extended periods of time.
The device's camera feature, when connected, allows Sabela to zoom in on what is projected in lecture halls, ensuring she doesn't miss any crucial information during presentations. With the Prodigi Connect, she navigated her academic challenges with confidence, making her an exceptional and top-performing medical student.
Sabela, who comes from rural Eshowe, would often sit closer to the chalkboard to see and take notes during high school. She didn’t have the means to get a proper diagnosis. Her family's financial constraints also meant she received glasses at a later age, exacerbating her visual impairment.
Despite being an exceptional student at Velangaye High School in Nkandla, and early acceptance into UKZN to study medicine, she found herself academically excluded in her second year because of poor performance. This was due to her visual impairment with which she struggled silently.
Passionate about medicine, she persevered and returned to UKZN. The Prodigi Connect, along with other adapted tools, helped her bridge the gap in her academic performance. The device not only opened a world of possibilities for Sabela, but also instilled in her a sense of worth and confidence. With the assistance of the UKZN Foundation and the DSU, her grades improved significantly, and she is now excelling as a final-year medical student.
Sabela loves practicing medicine and interacting with patients at an interpersonal psychosocial level. She is currently rotating in psychiatry at the King Edward Hospital. She finds mental health to be complex, but has had memorable moments, especially during her time in paediatrics at the Queen Nandi Hospital in Empangeni. One moment which impacted her deeply was when she encountered a young woman who brought in her child in need of resuscitation.
Working with a dedicated medical team to resuscitate the baby, and seeing the trust the mother placed in them, left a profound mark on Sabela. She realised that medicine goes beyond simply treating symptoms.
‘Witnessing the impact of medicine on people's lives, especially when they place their hope entirely on healthcare professionals, made me realise that being in the medical fraternity is about more than just treating symptoms, it’s a calling. I believe in looking at patients at a psychosocial level and addressing the underlying issues and making a positive impact on their well-being,’ she said.
Sabela always knew she wanted to be a doctor. Her brother is a practicing nurse while her older sister is retired from nursing. She will become the first doctor in her family, when she graduates next year.
To inspire greatness, Sabela reaches out mainly through social media and has conversations with patients, including teenage mothers, to motivate them and break the perception that medicine is only for certain people.
Despite her success, she struggles with imposter syndrome and often feels like she's not doing enough. However, she recognises that medicine is a continuous learning process, and her confidence grows with each practical experience and knowledge gained. She aspires to become a doctor who can have a positive impact on patients' lives.
Sabela emotionally recalls a touching incident from her past where she witnessed a compassionate doctor at a public hospital. She used to collect sunscreen from the hospital due to her albinism, and during one of her visits, she saw a woman, a homeless mental health user being cared for by the doctor. The doctor came out with a plastic bag and gave the woman a warm jersey, showing genuine kindness and empathy.
This encounter deeply moved Sabela, and she was inspired by the doctor's ability to interact with patients and treat them with such care. ‘The experience impacted me, and fuelled my desire to become a doctor who can make a similar positive difference in people's lives, just like this doctor.’
One significant lesson she learned is the importance of teamwork in medicine. Knowing when to refer patients to other specialists, and asking for assistance when needed, has helped her grow clinically and work independently. She understands that ‘being a doctor is not about doing everything, but about understanding the reasons behind each action taken.’ Sabela is also thankful for the patients who allow her to learn with them, even during her training.
She believes that life is limitless and that the limits are often perceptual rather than real. She encourages young people to be pioneers of their own future and to actively shape the kind of future they want for themselves.
Sabela loves spending time with her family, reading psychology books, and cooking. She finds cooking to be a relaxing and enjoyable activity, always eager to try out new recipes. She remains determined and driven to achieve her goals and dreams in the field of medicine.