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
Vimbai E. is a writer, journalist, ghostwriter and the founder of The Weight She Carries. With hundreds of articles publishing online, in print and for broadcast, her love of language and storytelling shines through every piece of writing that bears her name.