Claire Karekezi will become Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon when she returns in July. It’s the culmination of a lifelong journey that began at the age of 10, when she and her parents fled the mass killings in Rwanda.
“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.
As many as 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide in which the Tutsi minority group was systematically murdered across the east-African nation by the Hutu ethnic majority. More than two million refugees fled Rwanda, sparking a humanitarian crisis.
With the support of her parents, Karekezi attended school, where she excelled in science. In high school, she decided that becoming a doctor was the right path for her.
“It’s a feeling I cannot explain. Maybe I was born to help people,” she said.
Her impressive breadth of knowledge — as well as her personal story — stood out when she applied for a one-year training program in advanced cancer brain surgery at Toronto Western Hospital.
Canadian neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Bernstein chose Karekezi for the position out of dozens of applicants from across the globe.
“I have a soft spot for underdogs,” Dr. Bernstein said. “And just like Rwanda has picked itself up, Claire has picked herself up. She has dogged determination to succeed in neurosurgery.”
Among the skills Karekezi learned in Toronto are how to perform “awake” brain surgery, skull-based surgery for complicated tumors and the ins and outs of patient care.
She’s also grown to love Canada’s multiculturalism and developed an appreciation for Tim Hortons coffee (she takes it black).
Bernstein praised Karekezi’s breadth of knowledge, saying she arrived in Toronto a good doctor and is leaving a great doctor. She also has something that can’t be taught.
“She’s very engaging. Patients love her, she loves patients — that’s important,” Bernstein said. “I think because of her skills and because of her wonderful personality, she’ll be able to make headway back home.”
Karekezi credits part of her success to those who saw something in her, and offered her a chance to learn surgical skills she wouldn’t have been able to learn back home.
“I met very great mentors who believed I could make it, and they pushed me, and they believed in me,” she said.
And while Karekezi insists that surviving the Rwandan genocide did not inspire her to become a doctor, she said it shaped her into the person she is today. She credits her persistence and tenacity with seeing others around her — including friends and family — pick themselves up after they lost loved ones.
“When you look at them you think, I have no reason to give up,” she said.
When Karekezi returns to Rwanda this summer, her plan is to help improve cancer care in the country. Three months after she begins her practice, Dr. Bernstein will visit Karekezi to touch base and see how she’s doing.
“Whatever it takes, whatever contribution I can bring back, I’m willing to give that,” she said.
The chance to improve her skillset among some of the top doctors in Canadian neuroscience has been a priceless experience, Karekezi says.
“I feel that I’ve been blessed, because I had a dream.”
With a report from CTV News medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip