In-depth story: Dr. Praise Matemavi – From Teen Mom to Transplant Surgeon

An unplanned pregnancy at the age of 18 threatened to derail her dream of one day becoming a surgeon, but she wouldn’t let it. Though she had every reason to give up, failure was not an option. As a single mother of two, she put herself through medical school and was the only woman in her residency class. She fought her way to the top in a male-dominated field despite hearing discouraging comments like, “Girls don’t belong in an operating room,” from some attending physicians.

Well, the operating room is now her playground, and although her journey to becoming a transplant surgeon has had more twists and turns than a pretzel, she is now one of less than 10 black female transplant surgeons in America. 

Dr. Praise Matemavi was born and raised in Zimbabwe and knew very early on what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I knew I wanted to be a doctor since I was 4 years old…since I knew what a doctor does,” Matemavi told The Weight She Carries. “Then, when I discovered what surgeons do, I said, Oh gosh, I want to be a surgeon.’”

When Matemavi was about 10, a group of cardiac surgeons travelled to Zimbabwe from Loma Linda University in California, USA, to perform congenital heart surgeries on children at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare. Matemavi heard about it from her father, who knew someone whose child had heart disease.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘That sounds so cool, I want to be a cardiothoracic surgeon,’” Matemavi said.

Realizing her interest in medicine, her father bought her a copy of “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story” by Dr. Ben Carson. Matemavi was in fifth grade and finished reading the book in one night. She wanted to be just like Carson, but instead of the brain, she wanted to operate on the heart.

At 14, Matemavi’s family moved to Michigan, USA, partly for her to have a greater opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming a surgeon. The change didn’t affect Matemavi much. She continued to excel in her academics and firmly believed the sky was the limit.

“I always believed in myself,” she said. “I always believed I could do anything I wanted to do. There was never a doubt in my mind that I could do anything.”

Matemavi’s plan to become a doctor faced its first roadblock when she fell pregnant at 18.

“It was devastating,” she said. “First of all, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have committed this huge sin and God is never going to bless me.’ I didn’t know how I was going to ever fulfill my dream. It was sad because that was the one time I saw my dad cry.”

Despite the setback, Matemavi believed everything would work out, and although she would have to find a different avenue to her dream, she would still become a doctor one day. But in the meantime, her natural instinct was to correct the mistake she had made.

“Here I was…pregnant at 18, out of wedlock and I’m a pastor’s kid,” she said. “So for me, the solution was to marry the guy even though there was no love there.”

Matemavi got married in 2000 and tried to make the best of the situation, but what ensued was a troubled marriage filled with pain and abuse, she said.

“I went through so much heartache and pain, and that’s what probably helped fuel my drive,” Matemavi said.

Her parents could see what she was going through, but she tried to shield them from the extent of the abuse and didn’t tell anyone what was really going on because she didn’t want to cause her parents pain.

“People who are battered like that generally don’t talk to other people,” Matemavi said. “Even if you have a loving, supportive family, it’s hard to say, ‘This is what’s happening in my home.’

Meanwhile, Matemavi decided to go to nursing school. It wasn’t her preference, but it would provide a steady stream of income to pay for school because she wasn’t a U.S. Citizen at the time, and therefore didn’t have access to any financial aid.

She completed a two-year nursing program and began working as a nurse.

“I have to say that being a young mom gave me focus. At the end of the day, my priority was pursuing my dream for the sake of my children, so that they, too, could do whatever they wanted to do and realize that there are no limitations.” – Dr. Praise Matemavi

Matemavi tried to make things work in her marriage but by the time her second child was born, but said things became so bad that she feared for her life.

“I believed that if I did not get out of that marriage for the sake of my kids, I would end up dead; and then who would take care of my children?” she said. “I’d been through so much emotional and physical abuse at such a young age that by the time I finally walked away from the marriage, my parents were so happy.”

“One of the things that breaks my heart is when I see young girls who don’t know themselves and don’t realize their true value because I was there. And when you don’t know who you are in Christ, you will fall for anything.” – Dr. Praise Matemavi

Once Matemavi’s marriage came to an end, she felt free to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor and decided to study for the MCATs (Medical College Admission Test). She took the exam, did very well and began applying to medical schools.

“So now I’ve passed the MCATs, but I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, and all these medical schools require one to get into their programs,” Matemavi recalled. “I had all these interviews lined up to get into these medical programs because the schools were under the impression that I would have a bachelor’s degree by the time the program began.”

Matemavi devised a plan, went to an academic advisor at Sienna Heights University and stated her intentions.

She had one academic year to complete the 60 credits required to earn a bachelor’s degree. And that’s exactly what she planned to do.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Well, that’s not going to be possible, and I said, Oh yes, it’s going to be possible.”

Matemavi, who was now a single mother to two children under the age of 5, had endured a grueling schedule in order to prepare for the MCATs the previous year. She had enrolled for 20 credits each semester, and since she couldn’t take all the classes at Lake Michigan College due to conflicting class times, she took some of her classes at another community college, Southwestern College, about 40 minutes away.

Every morning, Matemavi would drop off her kids with the babysitter and attend class all day and into the evening. Then, on Fridays, she would work the 3-11 shift, spend Saturdays at church and with her kids, then work a double shift (3pm – 7am) on Saturday and Sunday night into Monday, and then freshen up and head straight to class Monday morning.

Matemavi knew that if she had handled such a rigorous schedule the year before, she could do it again.

“I had a timeline. I wanted to be done with medical school by the time I was 29,” she said. “That had to happen by any means necessary.”

Matemavi, who was 24 at the time, convinced her advisor to allow her to take 30 credits in the fall of 2005 and got As in all her classes. The next semester, she took another 30 credits and earned a bachelor’s degree.

On her birthday, June 24, 2006, Matemavi started medical school.

“If you’re determined and you want it bad enough, you can do anything,” she said. “That’s why I have no sympathy for people who say they cannot achieve their dreams. They can, they just don’t want it bad enough.”

“I sacrificed my social life and I’m socially awkward because I haven’t had a social life since I was 18. And that’s the thing about friendships. There are some friendships that can stand the test of time and withstand that kind of pressure, but some can’t, and that’s okay.” – Dr. Praise Matemavi

While in medical school, Matemavi met and married a fellow medical student believing she had finally found someone who understood her demanding schedule. But by the time she began her surgical residency, there was very little time to spend with her husband…Next Page


Add Yours
  1. 1

    Your story is an inspiration to me and I have made up my mind to go for my dreams no matter the situation. Thank you Doctor. I will share my testimony very soon. Amen

    • 2

      That’s awesome to hear, Nike! You can do anything you set your mind to and we wish you all the best. We’re glad you found Dr. Praise Matemavi’s story inspiring! We can’t wait to hear your testimony!

      • 3
        Andrea Watkins

        Your story moved my heart and brought my eyes to tears even though I did not struggle to be a surgeon there was still other struggles I had in my life going to college trying to finish college and I also had a surprise pregnancy, but I never would have thought of a woman this strong and this determined to be a surgery I really enjoyed the story and I hope many other women witrie this

  2. 5
    Thandanani Mangena

    What a wonderful testimony of what God can do , thank you for sharing. Mom’s legacy of hard work goes on. I watched her work very hard and I don’t doubt the Lord will carry you through It all babe sister, Keep shining and you have represented us very well 😍😍😅

  3. 6
    junta kinte

    wow she is one strong person. just the determination and focus on the goals is a great inspiration. However I more there’s no mention of her children at all except when they were dropped off at the child minder . how are the children copibg

    • 7
      zodwa mukuruva

      Thank you for writing this story Vimbai and Thank you Praise for being such a trailblazer.I cant believe i brushed shoulders with sich remarkable women.Your faith in God has truly inspired me.”Do it afraid”…that really stuck with me.

  4. 8
    Sisa Ncube

    Hmm such an inspiring true life journey & trusting God through & through. Thank you Dr. Praise Matemavi for your boldness. One thing for sure it does not take a strong- person to break the ceiling, but young, tiny and broken you just have that Faith that propelled you, now look at you girl!!❤❤Wish mummy could have had a chance to read your story. Kudos to your Dad too, he sure played a big role in guiding & l remember him babysitting the kids for you too. Proud of you & Pray that you continue to inspire & trust God

  5. 10
    Linda Schutte

    This is so inspiring, this lady is amazing, She stayed right by our Son when he had his pancreas transplant never left him for a moment. Her life is a testimony as to what God can do, Praise is a Beautiful name for a Beautiful lady,I know she has been such a blessing to our Son and I’m sure to many other families as well. May God richly bless her for her dedication as a Dr. the love she shows her patients as well as the glory she gives to God each and everyday. Thank you and God bless you ! The family of Cory Schutte

  6. 13
    Emem Idem

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is so inspiring! Gosh I can only thank God for making beauty from ashes. I am an internist in Texas and I have been reading your blog while waiting to see patients and I am literally tearing up. It’s so encouraging, it gives me hope and joy. Thank you for blogging and sharing.
    What a blessing!!! I am full of hope. Thank you, thank you, thank you

  7. 14

    Such an inspiring story from such a humble woman. You have given me so much hope to finish my degree. Above all am grateful that you know it was only God and your supportive family who made it possible.

  8. 17
    Hazel Muparuri

    I can’t even begin to imagine how I would survive alllll of this. I really can’t fathom this level of endurance, its unnatural!! Really its God, God has done it again 🙌 I’m not even jealous (maybe a little) but I’m astounded! I’m happy for you ma’am, you’re my hero.

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