She wanted to be a doctor for as long as she can remember. “I was very angry at being selected to play the role of a nurse, and not a doctor, in a school play in primary school!” She qualified in 2012 after completing her Master’s of Medicine at the University of Limpopo’s Medunsa campus.
Today, she’s a Senior Consultant at Dr George Mukhari Hospital, an academic hospital in the north of Pretoria near Ga-Rankuwa and a sessional plastic surgeon in the private Mediclinic Muelmed in Pretoria and Mediclinic Legae in Mabopane.
Plastic surgery used to be seen as a “white thing”, says Tshukudu – and was also very male-dominated. “Occasionally, a patient might still call me ‘Sister’ on a ward round.” Some male patients become self-conscious in her presence. She takes it all in her stride. “In our training, there was no obvious sexism. As long as the job got done.”
She says that much of plastic surgery – far from eye-lifts, face-lifts and tummy-tucks – involves reconstructive work on burn victims, cleft lip surgery, amputations or micro-surgery. “Looking at a parent after a successful cleft lip surgery is wonderful, but even cosmetic surgery – like a breast augmentation, which helps a patient feel confident again – gives me a great feeling. I saw a former patient who’d had a breast reduction at a wedding. She pushed out her chest at me. It still makes me smile.”
Early in her plastic surgery training, Tshukudu was involved as an assistant in the surgical separation of conjoined twins. Last year, she led a paediatric plastic surgery team involved in the separation of another set of twins conjoined in the abdominal region. “I represented the Department of Plastic Surgery as part of the multi-disciplinary team responsible for the decision-making process of the procedure. After the separation, there was a defect on the babies’ abdomens which needed to be closed. We managed it successfully.”
It’s a far cry from the time she was asked to give a presentation in New York about 10 years ago on chemical peeling. “It was the first time I’d travelled overseas. I was terrified of presenting internationally. I told my colleagues if I said something wrong, I’d just start mumbling. In the end, I didn’t need to do that!” she laughs.
“Someone asked me recently whether I consider myself successful and I asked my daughter how I should define success. She said: ‘If the younger you were shown a glimpse of where you are now, would she be proud? If the answer’s “yes”, then you’ve achieved success.’ I think my younger self would be.
“I wanted to do good in the world, to help people feel better – and I’m doing that. I love my work, my two kids and myself. I’m 49 and at the peak of my powers.”