THE NON-CONFORMIST DOCTOR
Let’s take this opportunity to congratulate a 31year old, who officially made history by becoming the 1st Motswana Doctor to ever pursue and hold a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Medicine, attaining a specialist qualification in a medical specialty that not many are familiar with. This follows yet another record-breaking achievement of becoming the 1st female doctor to ever join the armed forces as a fully qualified female medical doctor, registered with Botswana Health Professions council in 2015.
She chose a different and very unique specialty with no clear path ahead to follow on.
This is how her journey began.
After realizing the need for such skill in our country, especially with Botswana being signatory to International Civil Aviation Organization, she decided to throw herself into the deeper end and go for what she deemed necessary. Without knowing whether she will float or drown, she blindly went in, pursued Aerospace Medicine. She remembers her 1st day in class (for Masters) being told “we hope you survive. No African has ever successfully completed this program before”.
Her journey began when she self-funded for a foundation course in Aviation Medicine at the university of Pretoria, which runs in collaboration with the south African military health services. Requesting for recommendation letters from former bosses, for applications later into the Master of Science program, she faced many challenges. She struggled each time to explain this unfamiliar and unexplored avenue of medicine to those she needed help from. No one understood fully what she is trying to achieve, let alone what this specialty was about or even whether it existed at all. This did not discourage nor deter her. In 2017 she attained the Flight surgeon qualification from UP, which is also a UK qualification by the university of Cambridge. After a year of practice, she applied for Masters in Aerospace Medicine at one of UK’s top universities, King’s College London (KCL) and was accepted into the program.
King’s College London is currently the only UK university that offers Aerospace Medicine as a full-time program ran in collaboration with Royal Air Force, Centre of Aviation Medicine (RAF-CAM). Extensive research and practicals in aviation medicine take place at RAF-CAM, with scheduled visits for further practical and exposure to other places such as UKCAA headquarters, European Astronaut Centre in Germany, QinetiQ- Farnborough, Royal Navy-Yeovilton, British Airways headquarters, and others. Aerospace Medicine was officially accepted as an independent medical specialty in the UK, having been passed through the UK parliament and further qualified by the UK General Medical Council (GMC) in 2016, with a lengthy residency program available. The doctor says appreciation must be given to individuals such as Professor Gradwell who fought tirelessly to have Aerospace Medicine recognized for its value, uniqueness, breadth and depth. The unfortunate truth is that Africa at large is still far behind, Aviation medicine is still unknown, overlooked and under-appreciated because the Aviation industry here is slowly growing. The young doctor knew it was going to be a challenge to penetrate through this reality in our setting. Joining the military seemed as her only chance to realizing and practicing Aviation Medicine to the fullest for as long as she is in Botswana.
Her journey at Kings was extraordinary. She had amazing exposure during her training, which opened her eyes to the magnitude of Aerospace Medicine beyond what she had imagined. Not only did she attend at a world class university where she had amazing Professors such as the Aerospace Medicine Professor, Professor David Gradwell, external lecturers from USAF such as Surg Cdr (Dr) Malcom Woodcook, she also sat classes with amazing doctors (both civilian and military) from all over the world such as Canada, UK, Australia, Trinidad, Thailand and Singapore. Besides RAF-CAM, she attended practical lessons at UKCAA headquarters, British Airways Headquarters (Heathrow) and the Royal Navy in Yeovilton, undertook her research project under supervision of great Physiologists, during which she was amid other extraordinary professionals (space physiologists and scientists) from countries like Germany also pursuing their research at Kings. She had the opportunity to visit the European Space Agency/ European Astronaut Centre in Koln, Germany where she studied space physiology and space medicine, meeting astronauts such as Timothy Peake and communicating with those at the International Space Station at that time. She attended conferences such as the UK’s local Royal Aeronautical Society conference, the international Aerospace Medicine Association Conference (AsMA) which was held in Las Vegas (2019), where she continued to meet amazing Aerospace medicine specialists from all over, including those from NASA.
It’s a saying that everyone s case is different and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. This is a clear example. She didn’t conform to the norm of many doctors. She followed her passion and did not give into the discouragements and she survived. She is now Botswana s 1st and only Aerospace Medicine Specialist with a Master’s qualification, arguably the case even for Africa. She remembers being told one day in class, during her foundation course training that “it is not a specialty, don’t waste your time”. Looking back, she appreciates that she was fortunate enough to study her dream program in the UK where Aerospace Medicine is a specialty.
Having faced so many obstacles and discouragements, given every reason to why she couldn’t possibly be thinking that Aviation Medicine is anything at all, she could have easily been led to give up, but she wasn’t. Dr. Nako is grateful to her employer for the opportunity to pursue her dream course.
What people don’t know is that opportunities after advanced Aerospace Medicine courses are endless, especially internationally. The aviation industry is growing and there is need for specialists qualified to the highest level in Aerospace Medicine to fill in the existing gaps regarding health and air-safety in the aviation and space industry world-wide. Opportunities are numerous, from working in military organizations, civil aviation authorities including the international Civil Aviation Organization, big airliners like Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Qantas etc. She says; “You are the doctor NASA or ESA would hire for such qualities” (if you hold advanced qualifications in Aerospace Medicine from a reputable university).
Dr Onalenna Nako-Phuthego holds MD (Doctor of Medicine), A Degree in Teaching Russian Language (both from Rostov State Medical University of the Russian Federation) and a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Medicine from Kings College London, England.
This just goes to show you that no matter how big the obstacles between you and your dream may seem, you have to navigate through them and eventually you conquer. Her dream was big, unrealistic to many, unclear and almost far-fetched. But through perseverance she went for it and came out shining on the other side.An international germ she is now. We are proud and inspired by your hard-work, passion and sheer resilience. Let’s keep showing the world what we as Batswana are capable of.