South Africa
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Meet SA’s youngest and first female head of vascular surgery, Dr Asha Malan

Dr Asha Malan, the youngest and first female vascular surgeon to head an academic unit in the country, is on a mission to recruit other women in the medical field to follow suit.

Malan is head of the division for vascular surgery in the faculty of health sciences for the University of Free State and one of seven qualified women vascular surgeons.

She said the first step to get more women involved is to show that this type of medical practice may be challenging, but it can be done.  

Malan said surgery historically had a bad name due to the hours and demands of the job. She highlighted how surgeons needed to be available almost all the time, a schedule that fails to conform to the traditional expectations of women.

This is even more so for vascular surgery, as many patients require emergency care that does not respect working hours, she said.

Malan believes most women possess the ability to multitask efficiently.

“Not only can we do a number of things at once, but we can also do them well. Females have mastered the art of balancing the demands of their work and personal lives, and society is generally more receptive to this. This provides a definite advantage to not only function but flourish in the field of surgery and vascular surgery,” she said.

The 36-year-old said she was honoured to represent women in a historically male-dominated field.

“I had not previously thought about this (being the first female to head a unit for vascular surgery). I have always been of the opinion that if I achieve something, it should be because I worked hard enough for it and was blessed with God-given opportunities. This was one of the life lessons taught to me by my amazing parents,” she said.

Malan said it was a privilege to be in her position at such a young age.

“I have been in the fortunate position where hard work paid off, and to a large extent I was incredibly lucky. I believe my age counts in my favour. I am keen to learn, which is a daily exercise, and take on new opportunities. I am still ‘naive’ enough to dream big and market my dream of offering state-of-the-art vascular surgical care for all,” she said.

Malan has honed her skills by visiting units in other countries including Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. Later this year she is off to the Netherlands, France and the US to build on this. She plans to return to SA to teach the skills she acquires. 

She is one of only two female consultant surgeons in the department of general surgery at the university. 

“I believe we bring a unique perspective. We also have a particular leadership style that is inclusive and encouraging, contributing to an environment where others can grow and strengthen the department,” she said.

Malan graduated from the Harvard University Surgical Leadership Programme in April this year and said it was an amazing experience to liaise with colleagues in leadership roles within their respective surgical departments across the globe.

“It was an honour to represent the University of the Free State in this capacity,” she said.

Among her dreams is to build a nationally recognised quality vascular surgery unit. 


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Malan, who was steered into medicine when she developed a love for biology in school, said vascular surgery is one of the most “beautiful” types of surgery.

Her obsessive and perfectionist personality attracted her to this speciality. She described her work, which involves the treatment of diseases of the vascular system, as a “love to fix things”.

“I have always gained great joy from making something cleaner, neater and better. Medicine, and in particular, surgery, provides you with the privilege to do so for the human body.

“Vascular surgery is one of the most beautiful types of surgery. It is neat and clean, but at the same time challenging. It provides the opportunity to perform surgery on any part of the body and develop your surgical skills,” Malan said.

The most tiring part of vascular surgery, she said, is not the physical strain or the hours, but the intense planning it requires.

“It is in some aspects like the engineering of surgery. You sometimes have to come up with solutions to problems that no textbook contains. It is one of the fastest-growing surgical subspecialties worldwide due to innovation in the field. It is a way of thinking and I love every moment,” Malan said.