As a child growing up in Rwanda during the 1980s and ‘90s, Claire Karekezi dreamed of becoming a doctor. But what she calls her “guiding star” has taken her far beyond that initial goal to join the ranks of what is perhaps medicine’s most demanding specialty.
The 35-year old returned home as the first and only female neurosurgeon in Rwanda, says Toronto Western Hospital, where she has spent the last year honing her skills in neuro-oncology and skull base surgery, specializing in the removal of brain tumours.
Providing that service to brain cancer patients in a country with only one hospital-based MRI and few CT scanners will be a daunting task, but it’s one Karekezi is determined to overcome, just as she has all the challenges and sacrifices needed to fulfil her childhood dream.
Hers is a culmination of a lifelong journey that began at the age of 10, when she and her parents fled the mass killings in Rwanda.
“We grew up with fear, but we grew up with survival instincts — we have to push, we have to get through this,” Karekezi told CTV News.
It was a childhood scarred by the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people in the African nation, a bloodbath that retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire and his inadequately manned contingent of UN peacekeepers were powerless to prevent.
“In 1994, I was 10 years old … so I experienced the genocide as a growing kid,” said Karekezi, who was living with her parents and two older siblings in Kigali, the capital. “Everyone had to get out, people were being killed on the roads.”
She lost cousins and aunts in the massacre — a 100-day period she is loathe to speak about in any detail.
“I always tell people that that’s what sort of made us who we are today as Rwandese people, because we grew up knowing that we cannot count on anyone but ourselves.
“So this kind of spirit kept me going, to do whatever it takes to get where I want to go,” she says. “I keep pushing because the genocide happened, the whole world was watching and no one did anything. But we came through that, we are a strong nation, and we have very brave people who have managed to do impressive things now.”
Karekezi can surely count herself among their number.
After finishing high school in 2001, she was awarded a full government scholarship as an outstanding student to study medicine at the University of Rwanda in Butare, the city where she was born.
Her impressive breadth of knowledge — as well as her personal story — stood out when she applied for a one-year training program in advanced cancer brain surgery at Toronto Western Hospital.
Canadian neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Bernstein chose Karekezi for the position out of dozens of applicants from across the globe.
“I have a soft spot for underdogs,” Dr. Bernstein said. “And just like Rwanda has picked itself up, Claire has picked herself up. She has dogged determination to succeed in neurosurgery.”
Among the skills Karekezi learned in Toronto are how to perform “awake” brain surgery, skull-based surgery for complicated tumors and the ins and outs of patient care.
She’s also grown to love Canada’s multiculturalism and developed an appreciation for Tim Hortons coffee (she takes it black).
Bernstein praised Karekezi’s breadth of knowledge, saying she arrived in Toronto a good doctor and is leaving a great doctor. She also has something that can’t be taught.
“She’s very engaging. Patients love her, she loves patients — that’s important,” Bernstein said. “I think because of her skills and because of her wonderful personality, she’ll be able to make headway back home.”
Karekezi credits part of her success to those who saw something in her, and offered her a chance to learn surgical skills she wouldn’t have been able to learn back home.
“I met very great mentors who believed I could make it, and they pushed me, and they believed in me,” she said.
And while Karekezi insists that surviving the Rwandan genocide did not inspire her to become a doctor, she said it shaped her into the person she is today. She credits her persistence and tenacity with seeing others around her — including friends and family — pick themselves up after they lost loved ones.
“When you look at them you think, I have no reason to give up,” she said.
When Karekezi returns to Rwanda this summer, her plan is to help improve cancer care in the country. Three months after she begins her practice, Dr. Bernstein will visit Karekezi to touch base and see how she’s doing.
“Whatever it takes, whatever contribution I can bring back, I’m willing to give that,” she said.
The chance to improve her skills among some of the top doctors in Canadian neuroscience has been a priceless experience, Karekezi says.
“I feel that I’ve been blessed, because I had a dream.”