‘You’re here for a purpose,’ says Professor Mashudu Tshifularo, who recently performed globally groundbreaking ear surgery  |  Photo: Ross Bentley

South African doctor Mashudu Tshifularo hit headlines in 2019 with his surgical world first when he restored the hearing of a car crash victim by implanting an inexpensive middle ear ‘bone’ made by a 3D printer. The surgery, performed at the state-run Steve Biko Academic Hospital, broke new ground and was particularly exciting due to its affordability for the ordinary citizen. SUSAN BENTLEY discovered how it came about, why he thinks we’re here on earth, his biggest regret and his greatest joy

Professor Mashudu Tshifularo, 55, is head of Pretoria University’s department of otorhinolaryngology (yes, it’s a thing). One of six children born in Venda to a railway worker father, he was educated at Rambuda and Dimani Agricultural high schools. The prof studied medicine at University of KwaZulu-Natal, has six children and lives with his wife Fiona in Hartebeespoort, Gauteng

  • Huge congrats on the world-first op, how’s your patient doing now? He’s pain-free and his hearing has gone from 0% to 80%!
  • What gave you the idea to 3D-print a replacement middle ear bone?  I realised technology was advancing and the possibility of making a better prosthesis was very real. I started making drawings of what the prosthesis for ear ossicles could look like
Prof on a mission: ‘I’m always Googling’  |  Photo: Ross Bentley
  • What happened next? I’m always Googling and I came across a story about South African Jason Laing, who had a cycling accident that trapped an artery in his shoulder. Amputation was on the cards but Jason was a jeweller who’d been using 3D printing for years. The upshot was that 3D-printed titanium implants were implanted into his shoulder, which was a world first. I asked Jason if he might be able to make a 3D ear implant for me, and brought him into surgery to understand the conditions in which it would be used
  • Your next op of this kind? Clinical trials need to be finished and I’m hoping for March 2020
  • With 3D printing, could ANY bone be replicated? Yes
  • Tell us about your commitment to racial transformation in the medical profession. I believe people shouldn’t just accept things as they are, but rather work to understand and change. I want to show young black people they can aspire to do whatever they feel called to do. I want them to believe in themselves and work to make South Africa and the world a better place. We need to learn to solve our own problems
The prof, pictured here with son Brian, has six children. ‘I’d like my children to respect others and give people the benefit of the doubt,’ he says  |  Photo: Ross Bentley
  • Key things you encourage in your children? To be emotionally intelligent, to love and respect yourself, to respect others and give them the benefit of the doubt!
  • Biggest regret? That I lacked emotional intelligence and did not understand what it took to make my first marriage work. I realise now that there are seasons in any relationship
Outside his medical work, the prof is a lay pastor who believes in the power of prayer and prays with people through issues they are facing. ‘Patients [also] ask me to pray with them so I am able to help them spiritually and physically.’   |  Photo: Ross Bentley
Man of encouragement: ‘I want to show young black people they can aspire to do whatever they feel called to do,’ says the prof. ‘I believe people shouldn’t just accept things as they are.’  |  Photo: Ross Bentley
  • Why do you think we’re here on the planet? You’re here for a purpose. Know who you are, not just your colour or where you come from, but who you are as a person. Whose script are you living? Find your own story, your own strengths and weaknesses. Then develop those strengths and contribute at the highest level possible. While you’re doing all that, remember to laugh and not be too hard on yourself. Have a heart that sows seeds. You can only sleep in one bed, drive one car, live in one home. Use the extra you have to help others to develop their strengths
  • You’re a lay pastor. How, as a 21st century scientist, can you believe in God? I’ve worked with people in many different ways. Healthy people, sick people, people in comas: even people as cadavers, when I was training! And so I ask myself – what is a human being? We are only temporarily in this body, so what’s next? I believe that my spirit connects to the one great spirit who is God. Following God has taught me to respect myself and others, and the more I learn about the human body, the more my respect grows for God
  • How do you connect to God? I read the Bible, pray, and meet with fellow Christians. I believe I’m helped by God every day. If I encounter problems, I ask God to help me, and then I keep working. Ideas come to mind and I implement them. It’s an ongoing process. Patients ask me to pray with them, and so I am able to help them holistically, both spiritually and physically
The prof with family and church friends. His wife Fiona is in the black and white dress, and his daughter Sandra in the white jacket. Nephew Thabiso is on the right at the front  |  Photo: Ross Bentley
  • What keeps you awake at night? Innovation. I’m always thinking about new ideas and how to do things differently. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, everything is constantly changing and we need to keep moving and changing too
  • Greatest joy? To have been part of groundbreaking research that has changed the trajectory of medicine. To have changed people’s lives in my roles as a doctor and a pastor
The prof was included in GQ Magazine’s Men of 2019 lineup and given the Editor’s Special Award  | Photo: GQ Magazine
‘There’s so much to learn,’ says Prof Tshifularo. ‘The more I learn about the human body, the more my respect grows for God.’  |  Photo: Ross Bentley
‘My greatest joy is to have changed people’s lives, both as a doctor and a pastor,’ says the prof   |  Photo: Ross Bentley
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