Lenise Swanson knew she wanted to be a doctor before she started primary school.
“I believe that this is the path that was set out for me,” says the Monte Vista paediatric cardiologist.
“As a child, I was inspired by both my cousin as well as our family doctor, both of whom are excellent GPs. They both showed such enthusiasm for the work they were doing. They fuelled me with the desire to want to do something which would help make the lives of others’ better.”
The go-getter and mother of two – with a third on the way – graduated from UCT in 2004 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree.
She did a Diploma in Child Health through the South African College of Medicine (CMSA) in 2006.
“I registered as a trainee paediatrician with Stellenbosch University and completed my four years of training at Tygerberg Hospital. In 2012, I qualified as a general paediatrician, and received a Fellowship in Paediatrics from the Colleges Of Medicine Of South Africa (CMSA), as well as a Master’s degree in Medicine from Stellenbosch University in 2013.”
In 2014, she enrolled as a trainee in the sub-speciality of paediatric cardiology through Stellenbosch University and with the guidance of mentors at Tygerberg and Red Cross War Memorial Children’s hospitals, she received a Certificate in Paediatric Cardiology from the CMSA in May last year.
“I am currently enrolled for an MPhil degree at UCT, which I aim to complete later this year,” she says.
She feels “blessed”, she says, to have a job that exposes her to the “innocence of a child” every day.
“People often ask how I feel about working with such sick children, and the truth is that some days are harder than others. As a mother of two young children, my natural instinct is to want to nurture my patients as if they are my own children, and it can be extremely heartbreaking to see them sick or in any kind of pain. But despite this, my job is so rewarding.
“Watching my patients recover, seeing their faces light up as they are able to interact and play again, or sometimes even just the faintest flicker of a smile as they recognise my face these are the moments that make my job so special to me.” Dr Swanson says tell-tale signs an infant might have a heart condition include sweating excessively, especially while feeding; difficulty breathing; bluish discolouration of the tongue or around the mouth; tiring easily with minimal effort; struggling to gain weight despite adequate nutrition; and the presence of a cardiac murmur at any clinical examination.
“If your child has any of these symptoms, it is advisable that they be examined by a cardiologist, so that a diagnostic echocardiogram (cardiac ultrasound) can be done to assess the structure and function of the heart properly.
“Many cardiac lesions are missed shortly after birth, and the symptoms only start appearing a few weeks later.
“Congenital heart disease is a serious condition, but if diagnosed early, most conditions can have a very good outcome.” Dr Swanson says congenital heart disease (CHD) is the most common birth defect seen in newborns, with one out of every 100 babies born with the condition.
“Globally, this amounts to more than 15 million new CHD cases each year. The bulk of my work consists of evaluating, diagnosing and treating children born with abnormal hearts.
“Children who are born with normal hearts are still at risk of acquiring heart disease later in childhood, and diseases such as myocarditis, which is the inflammation of the heart muscle; cardiomyopathy, which is the severe weakness of the heart muscle; rheumatic heart disease and cardiac failure from various causes are just some of the devastating conditions which I commonly see in my patients.”
Dr Swanson says women face many unique challenges in life, and it is not always easy to balance the roles of being a wife, a mother, a daughter, a career-woman and still also enjoy being an individual.
“Instead of celebrating our success, we are often left with a sense of guilt and apology for the personal sacrifices which we have to make to advance our careers. This has to change.
“We have been given this life for a reason; there is purpose to all that we do. It is up to us to fulfil that purpose”.
She encourages women to take some time to get to know themselves better. “Know who you are, what you want, and where you would like life to take you. Work hard to achieve your goals; success will always follow hard work.
“So believe in yourself, and you will do unbelievable things,” she says.
Asked her thoughts on the widespread abuse women in South Africa face, Dr Swanson says: “Love yourself. Always. Love yourself enough to take the actions necessary to ensure your own happiness and safety.
“If something is bad for you, love yourself enough to walk away. Be brave. Do not allow yourself to become a product of circumstance. Rise up, stand tall. For you are beautiful, and you will do great things.”