Nalwanga: Uganda’s first female neurosurgeon

By Pauline Luba
As a child, Juliet Sekabunga Nalwanga was fascinated whenever she saw tellers in banks with bundles of cash. As such, she made up her mind to work in a bank. However, as she grew up, she realized that the money saved there was not actually theirs. She started feeling the pull to save human life instead. She opted for a career in medicine.

Becoming first neurosurgeon

In 2018, Nalwanga became a neurosurgeon, a specialist who treats conditions impacting the brain and spinal cord. She is Uganda’s first female neurosurgeon, a feat that earned her global recognition in a field where specialists are rare. She also was the first woman in Uganda to obtain a Masters of Medicine in Surgery from Mbarara University of Science and Technology. She is fully aware that the 13 neurosurgeons that were serving Uganda’s more than 40 million people by 2021 are inadequate. The World Health Organization recommends one neurosurgeon for every 100,000 people. As such, she has joined a team of people training more professionals in the field, as well as mentoring surgical trainees. 

Nalwanga has taught medical students in four universities in Uganda, including Uganda Christian University (UCU), where she is currently a faculty member at the university’s School of Medicine.

The last born of 10 siblings says she had inspiration within her family for the career choice. Her maternal aunt, who she says was a great encourager and at one time paid her school fees, was a physician. Nalwanga’s father, Prof. Sekabunga, was a respected academic and a well-known pediatric surgeon at Uganda’s national referral facility, Mulago Hospital, in the 1970s and 1980s.

The 40-year-old Nalwanga possesses a Master of Medicine in Surgery from Uganda’s Mbarara University of Science and Technology, and a Fellowship in Neurosurgery from the College of Surgeons East, Central and Southern Africa. She also has a Fellowship in Pediatric Neurosurgery from The Hospital for Sick Children, which is part of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, where she spent a year-long in training.

Nalwanga advises future professionals to prioritize training in their countries if that is where they hope to practice, and only seek opportunities for fellowship from abroad. When one trains in a country where he/she hopes to practice medicine, it helps with understanding better some of the conditions that may be more prevalent among the people in that geographic area. 

The main reason for the late entry of women into neurosurgery in Uganda, according to Nalwanga, is culture. 

“Women operate on a biological clock. It makes it difficult to go after things that take a long time, such as medical school,” she says, adding, “There is a point, though, when one can get the courage to be different and go after what they want, regardless of that clock.” 

In Uganda, a medical course takes five years, with a mandatory one-year of internship before practice. 

To Nalwanga, neurosurgery is often a matter of an emergency. However, Nalwanga says the challenge of a shortage of resources may hamper the timely provision of many interventions. The issue of affordability of the services is another challenge that many patients face, which Nalwanga says directly affects any timely assistance for those with neurological challenges.

The women and men in society who have sacrificed a lot to make the lives of other people better are Nalwanga’s true heroes and have inspired her to reach where she is. Nalwanga has had a number of such heroes at various points in her life. 

On days when either work has not gone well, or Nalwanga has met stressful conditions, she says she finds solace in spending time with her 13-year-old son, Majwega Paul Isaiah. “He calms me down,” she said.    

When she isn’t working, Nalwanga is driving, roller-skating outside of Ugandan roads or exploring nature. Her life goal is to invent things that can aid with neurological challenges and enable people to lead normal lives.

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