Unqualified! So what?

Would you allow an unqualified surgeon without any medical training to operate on you? Probably not, unless… In around 1926, an African is born somewhere in a tiny village in South Africa. Till the age of 14 he goes to school but when his family can no longer afford it he has to leave. He goes to Cape Town and finds a job there as a gardener in the ‘Groote Schuur’, a university hospital. His precision and conscientiousness get him noticed. In 1954 he is chosen to assist in animal testing in the research laboratory, doing cleaning work. As time goes by, he is given more responsible tasks to fulfil. Because he his interested in the profession, he constantly observes how white surgeons perform operations on test animals. He also reads medical books so that he can help them better. His skills improve. Finally, as an unqualified surgeon, he performs operations independently (with the hospital’s permission), until…

Fast-forward to December 1967. In the Groote Schuur hospital a heart transplant operation is performed successfully for the first time, on a 59 year old white man suffering from a fatal heart disease. The team that carries out this operation is led by a white surgeon, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who instantly becomes world-famous. The person that removed the donor heart from the white donor is a black surgeon. Because of his skills, Barnard wants him on his team. But this is a problem because he has no formal qualifications. And he is black; and the law on apartheid forbids a coloured person from operating on a white person, nor can he come into contact with the blood of a white man. Dispensation is requested and granted. A part of the agreement is that nobody must know about this and that the unqualified surgeon must not talk about it to anyone. His contribution is not referred to, and if he appears on a team photo by accident, people have to say he is a cleaner. Fact or fiction?

On 29 May 2005 a black African dies at the age of 78. He is married, a father to 4 sons and a daughter, has many grandchildren and is a highly respected transplant surgeon without any formal training. His name is Hamilton Naki. During his career, he works at the Groote Schuur hospital as a gardener and later as a researcher and an ’unqualified’ surgeon. His salary is that of a lab technician, the maximum that a black person can earn in a laboratory. He lives in a ghetto in Cape Town in a small hut without any running water or electricity. Despite these circumstances – the result of racial discrimination – Hamilton puts in the full 100%. He continues to do his very best through his love of helping other people. Due to administrative reasons, upon retiring he receives only the pension entitlement of a gardener – 275 dollars per month. And even then he continues to work for society by, for example, setting up a clinic for the community to which he belongs.

Whether Hamilton Naki was in fact the surgeon that removed the donor heart still remains unclear (and for some people even improbable). What is undeniable is that he was highly respected by Dr. Barnard and other fellow-surgeons for his technical skills, his contributions to research and for his innovative ideas on heart and liver transplant techniques. Barnard: ‘If Hamilton had been given the chance to study, he would probably have become a brilliant surgeon.’ Naki also taught white students for many years without having followed any formal medical training. When apartheid was officially abolished, Hamilton Naki received an important distinction and the title of Doctor Honoris Causa.

Despite the course his life took, in interviews Hamilton never expressed bitterness about having to work in the shadows of white people. That’s just the way it was. And this makes him such a wonderful example, personifying the statement made by Piero Ferruci: ‘Friendliness is the most economic attitude to life. You don’t waste any energy on mistrust, worries, dislikes or manipulation.’ He is also an example of focusing on positivity, and of how it’s possible to achieve much more than you first think is possible – through inspiration, focus and hard work.

A recent example of this also originates from Africa (Malawi). Watch this short TED presentation of a young boy who, at the age of 14, builds a machine that changed his life drastically.

Now you know two reasons why Hamilton Naki is such an inspiration for me. My question for you is this: what are the most important insights and/or pieces of wisdom that this life story has brought you? Take five minutes to think about this. And then for the next 10 minutes, ask yourself how you can use these insights and/or pieces of wisdom in your own life. What do you want to contribute to the world?

Dare to be unqualified!

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