Dr Amanda Malungo is a plastic, reconstructive, and aesthetic surgeon and one of our biggest inspirations. After earning a Smile Train-sponsored scholarship to become a Fellow of the College of Surgeons of East, Central, and Southern Africa, she became the first female plastic surgeon in Zambia. Today, she is an active Smile Train partner and a mother of four. And she’s only 36 years old.
In honour of International Women’s Day, we caught up with this fearless woman to discuss her path to success, her advice to girls in Africa and around the world who want to follow in her footsteps, how men can support their female colleagues, challenges to providing cleft care in southern Africa, and so much more.
What inspired you to pursue a career as a plastic surgeon? What was that journey like?
During my rural medical practise, I met clients who required reconstructive surgery but lacked easy access to specialist care. These included pressure ulcers, post-burn contractures, and babies born with clefts. I felt that there was a gap in care, which inspired me to specialise in plastic surgery. I wanted to provide care that would make a difference and help to fill this gap.
When did you first hear of Smile Train? What inspired you to apply for the fellowship? How long have you studied?
I first heard about Smile Train during my specialist training. Smile Train was providing support to cleft surgeons and their clients. My colleagues who were already working with Smile Train to bring specialist care closer to this vulnerable community inspired me to apply for the fellowship.
Congrats on being the only female cleft surgeon in Zambia! What are some of the needs you have identified in addressing plastic surgery in your country?
Thank you. The greatest need we have as a country is increasing the number of qualified surgeons who are experienced in handling complex plastic surgical cases. The few who are involved in this care need support from stakeholders; we are still facing a shortage of the equipment we need to improve care significantly. Furthermore, there is a need to train support staff involved in providing comprehensive care for cleft patients, including speech therapists, geneticists, nutritionists, and orthodontists, among so many others.
What would you tell other female doctors who would like to pursue plastic surgery in your country but may be apprehensive?
If you want to specialise in surgery, go for it! Anyone can make it with the right mindset. Plastic surgery is an innovative and dynamic specialty, and the stressful residencies and long hours become less significant over time. It also affords a lot of opportunities to super-specialise in any of the branches of plastic surgery.
Women face unique challenges during their surgical careers, such as child-bearing and additional family obligations. Some put off starting a family until their career goals are met. However, times have changed and surgery is now a more positive space for women to grow thanks to female pioneers who fought the hardest battles of gender discrimination. If you have a passion for something, push hard and seek support or mentorship from others who have been there. Women have unique attributes that should be harnessed; we don’t have to mimic stereotypical male behaviour to succeed.
How can men support women who want to be plastic surgeons?
With surgery being a male-dominated field, by default, most of my colleagues and mentors are male. Fortunately, I was inspired, challenged, and encouraged by exceptional senior surgeons of all genders. Though gender discrimination still exists, the field has taken many strides to make surgical careers more inclusive for women. We need to reduce discrimination in the workplace and surgical programmes by encouraging more female participation; when we all have equal opportunity, we can all achieve more together. Only once that happens can we achieve our ultimate goal of making plastic surgery accessible to every patient who needs it.
How great is the need for cleft care in your country and how do you intend to address it?
There is a great need for cleft care in Zambia. There are very few local surgeons operating on these patients, and I intend to continue practising and participating in cleft outreach programmes here.
As more people are trained in cleft surgery across the country, my hope is to establish a cleft centre where comprehensive care and follow-up services can be coordinated. To get there, we will need to invest in infrastructure and research to improve the quality of care.
The true advocates, however, are the people in the community who have had cleft surgery. Their stories give families hope and help them realise that a healthy life is possible.
Are there any local myths that hinder access to quality treatment?
Some communities in Africa still ostracise people with clefts. They are believed to be cursed, and as a result, the family may hide their child for as long as possible to prevent discrimination. To give an example, I was particularly touched recently by a young woman who was abandoned by her husband and family when they learnt she had a family history of cleft lip, and later, had a child with a cleft. This child is now a patient of mine.
Another common myth is that children with clefts are a result of the mother being promiscuous during her pregnancy. This stigma discourages women from seeking help for their children, which, in turn, hinders access to surgery.
How does your family support your ambitions?
Family support has been a huge part of my journey. As you can imagine, being a mom to four children is a full-time job on its own. My husband, Andrew, has been incredibly supportive in filling in the parental gap whenever I have work commitments. Sometimes, we have long surgeries that take up most of the night, or emergencies that come in at odd hours. My family has been very understanding of my passion and career choice, and I am very grateful for that.
What are your hobbies and passions beyond work?
Outside work, I make time to socialise with family and friends as much as possible. I love travelling and outdoor activities — I am somewhat of an adrenaline junkie, so I like cycling, zip lining, and hiking. At home, I love baking, cooking, and reading.
Any other comments?
I am thankful to God for the path that life has brought me on so far. Cleft surgery is among the most satisfying and life-changing procedures you can perform as a doctor. Thank you, Smile Train, for supporting my training and for bringing smiles to so many families.
Help Smile Train empower women, transform communities, and save lives around the world. Become a donor now.