Dr. Claire Karekezi is the embodiment of the word "resilience." In 1994, at the age of 10, Karekezi and her parents fled Rwanda during the height of the Rwandan genocide. In an interview with CTV News, she shared that surviving that heinous period in Rwandan history, in which at least 800,000 lives were taken at the hands of the Hutu ethnic majority, taught her at a young age that she had to push on.
"We grew up with fear, but we grew up with survival instincts — we have to push, we have to get through this," Karekezi told CTV News.
PHOTO: CTV News
Now, 24 years later, Karekezi is on the verge of making history as Rwanda’s first and only female neurosurgeon. During her time in high school, Karekezi realized that she wanted to be in the medical field but neurosurgery never crossed her mind. Initially her focus was radiology, but after being accepted as an exchange student at the University of Linkoping in Sweden through the International Federation of Medical Students and recognizing the only department operating during the summer period was neurosurgery, she took a leap of faith.
That leap led to her true calling; Dr. Jan Hillman, the head of the neurosurgery department at the time, took her on as a mentee and introduced her to a new career path. Hillman taught her the complexities of the brain with a concentration on brain tumors.
After a 12 year journey, several programs, accolades and undying commitment, Karekezi will be completing her tenure at Toronto Western Hospital in July and returning to Rwanda eager to begin efficiently offering services to patients "by smoothing the paths between surgeons, oncologists, radiation therapists and other care providers," according to Toronto City News.
When describing Karekezi, Canadian neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Bernstein, who chose Karekezi for the competitive Toronto-based program in advanced cancer brain surgery training, he focused on her triumph spirit.
"I have a soft spot for underdogs and just like Rwanda has picked itself up, Claire has picked herself up. She has dogged determination to succeed in neurosurgery," Bernstein told CTV News.
The budding neurosurgeon also hopes collaborate with the four Rwandan male neurosurgeons to develop a multidisciplinary neuro-oncology center. Needless to say, this is just the beginning for Dr. Karekezi and this goes beyond the recognition; she believes she is truly walking in her purpose.
"It’s passion, it’s dedication," she said to Toronto City News. "It’s not about money — I’m living my dream and I love what I do. This is something I can do. This is something I can bring back to Rwanda."
Watch Dr. Karekezi on CTV News here: