Honoring Zimbabwe’s First Female Orthopedic Surgeon on International Women’s Day

March 08, 2023
Dr. Tracern Mugodo

When Dr. Tracern Mugodo greets patients for the first time, they often respond with disbelief and ask her when the real doctor is coming. When they find out they are talking to her, disbelief sometimes turns to outright fear.

“People expect surgeons to be older men,” explains Tracern, who at 33 years old, is Zimbabwe’s first female orthopedic surgeon as well as a leading figure in the country’s fight against clubfoot. “They’re not used to the idea of a female orthopedic surgeon, especially not a young one.”

She says her staff sometimes seem reluctant to take directives from a woman. And when she does ward rounds, patients call her “sister,” assuming she’s a nurse. Routinely, they assume her juniors are her bosses. Yet, Dr. Tracern learned a long time ago how to brush off the doubts of others.

“People regard orthopedics as man’s work because it requires strength to hold the bones and use all the equipment,” she says, adding that even her friends at medical school questioned whether her decision to go into orthopedics was realistic. “But I told them they’ll just have to wait and see. It’s what I want and I’m going to do it.”

Today, her schedule is a busy one that includes working as a surgeon in one of Harare’s biggest hospitals while also working for a small private practice. And on top of that, she serves as the clinical manager of the Zimbabwe Sustainable Clubfoot Program (ZSCP), MiracleFeet’s partner organization in Zimbabwe.

“I was drawn to work on clubfoot because the results are so positive,” says Tracern, who is responsible for training public health workers in Ponseti clubfoot treatment, supervising at clubfoot clinics and raising awareness of the condition at schools, universities, and medical facilities across the country. “You can change a life just like that—and seeing the reaction of the community drives me to want to do more and more.”

When Dr. Tracern started working for ZSCP, she says there was a shortage of doctors in rural areas who were able to perform tenotomies, a comparatively simple outpatient procedure that involves cutting the Achilles tendon. Though it takes only a few minutes and requires only local anesthetic, it is an important part of Ponseti method.

“I knew that by training doctors in the Provincial hospitals I could make a big difference,” she says about her work training other providers in the Ponseti treatment method.

Tracern knew she wanted to be a doctor ever since she was a young girl. Growing up, her family ran a small slaughterhouse, and from the age of eight, she used to tag along to help her father prepare cattle for the chopping block for their butcheries. It sparked a lifelong fascination with anatomy.

By the time she began doing practical exercises at medical school, she found that her experiences at the slaughterhouse had left her in good stead. “It was like deja vu,” she says. “I felt as though I’d done it all before.”

When Dr. Tracern finally qualified as a surgeon after thirteen long years of study, training, and internships, she was faced with a difficult choice: whether to stay and practice in Zimbabwe or to leave in search of higher wages overseas. Zimbabwe has seen an exodus of medical workers over the past few years, driven in part by inflation that has made it hard for even salaried professionals to make a living.

The country’s Health Services Board reports that some 4,000 doctors and nurses have left the country since 2021 in search of opportunities elsewhere. But while almost all of Dr. Tracern’s classmates from medical school have since left Zimbabwe, she decided to stay.

“I felt that my services were more needed here in Zimbabwe,” she says. “I’m happy trying to serve those around me. I never felt a strong desire to leave.”

She also hopes that by staying and continuing her work in Zimbabwe, she can inspire other women and girls to follow their dreams and not feel constrained by the expectations of society. When she meets medical students, she tells them: “If you have a passion, you can do anything.”

“It hasn’t always been easy, but things are slowly improving,” she says. “Now I hope it will be a bit easier for the women who come after me.”