Dr Ntobeko Ntusi currently works from Groote Schuur's Cardiac Clinic where he is aiming to broaden the understanding of cardiomyopathies and inflammatory heart disease in Africans. Not to mention formulating goals for Africa's top department of medicine, which he will soon be heading up.
Ntusi was born to a family of three boys and grew up in Umtata. During high school he moved to the United States with his mother, who was studying for a PhD in social work education.
“My mom was doing her PhD there at the time and I decided to stay and do a degree in molecular and cellular biology – a BSc honours – at Haverford College,” explains Ntusi.
He later returned to South Africa to study medicine at UCT and graduated in 2003. He completed his medical internship and community service at Frere Hospital in East London before coming back to UCT to specialise in internal medicine.
“I then wrote my exams for the Fellowship of [the Royal] College of Physicians in 2009, and at the time was also doing research towards my first doctorate, which was an MD in cardiology,” says Ntusi.
Having been awarded the Nuffield Medical Fellowship, he then jetted off to Oxford University to complete a DPhil in cardiovascular medicine, using cardiovascular magnetic resonance to study disease mechanisms in autoimmune forms of inflammatory heart disease.
“Then I came back to Cape Town to finish my training in cardiology and to establish my own research group – training masters and PhD students, focusing on advanced, non-invasive cardiovascular imaging techniques, mostly cardiovascular CT and MRI.”
'I've been here nearly half my life'
When asked what keeps him coming back to UCT, Ntusi says, “UCT feels like home now – I've been here for so long. It's a wonderful institution . . . I have been very fortunate to have friends and wonderful colleagues, and importantly wonderful mentors. People who really went out of their way to create opportunities for me and provide guidance and advice,” says Ntusi.
Ntusi enjoys working in the Division of Cardiology and the Department of Medicine because of the diversity, talent, enthusiasm and commitment of the staff.
“People are genuinely committed to making a difference. It's a wonderful place to work,” he says.
He is currently working on several research projects.
“My area of research falls within what you would call non-communicable diseases and within those I have two key areas of interest: cardiomyopathies and inflammatory heart disease,” says Ntusi.
Man of many talents
Ntusi is also an avid sportsman. He ran competitively both in high school and during his undergraduate years.
“I had the opportunity to try for the Olympics, but I was quite committed to the academic project and at the same time I had been awarded the Howard Hughes Biomedical Fellowship,” he says.
The fellowship became an extension of his initial undergraduate research, which he found captivating and let him to decide that it was the work he wanted to do.
“I also danced at quite a high level. When I was 13, I was the SA Junior Ballroom Dance Champion, and when I was in the US, I won the North American Ballroom Dance championships. But at some point I felt I needed to make a choice, and medicine triumphed,” says Ntusi.
He still enjoys running and runs socially with the Gugulethu Athletics Club, one of the largest in Cape Town.
'I have been very fortunate'
Ntusi has a great sense of gratitude to his parents.
“The sacrifices they made to allow my brothers and I to be where we are today . . . And I really feel that they provided a childhood which allowed us to be able to thrive and reach our full potential,” he says.
Ntusi started doing his own research during his undergraduate years, which put him a step ahead of his peers.
“I walked to the office of Professor Ralph Kirsch, who was the HOD of medicine at the time, and I asked if I would have financial support for a number of ideas that I had,” says Ntusi. “Prof Kirsch listened and in the end asked me how much I needed. The rest is history.”
It was this proactive attitude and his research activities that led to his first publication. Since then he has worked with a number of people, including Prof Bongani Mayosi, the outgoing HOD of medicine.
Ntusi describes Professor Mayosi as one of his biggest role models.
“He's a remarkable man, a real visionary. One of his greatest strengths has been his ability to uplift everybody around him, and he really has been able to do that without looking at people's race, religion or background,” says Ntusi.
He also remembers his time at Oxford being quite formative.
“I had two amazing supervisors, Prof Stefan Neubauer and Dr Theo Karamitsos, who just opened up my world view of how to approach academic cardiology and, in particular, imaging.” says Ntusi.
This was also a time where Ntusi made contacts in his field and regularly presented at top conferences around the world, building a name for himself.
'In many ways I feel like I have a dream job.'
In his current job, Ntusi interacts with people across the entire spectrum of healthcare, from young undergraduate students to top academics around the world.
“I get to work with gifted nurses and very supportive staff like our cleaners and janitorial staff,” he says. “But I also engage at a policy level with different organisations that support the work that we do.”
He also finds working with his patients very rewarding. He still enjoys looking after people: making diagnoses and then seeing them get better and teaching them about their conditions, empowering them to be active participants in their own therapeutic process.
“Most of the research is clinical and I think it's a wonderful opportunity to be able to work at the bedside to develop clinical questions,” says Ntusi. “And to then use research tools to be able to creatively answer those questions”
Ntusi also finds time to teach undergraduate and postgraduate students.
“I teach honours courses for biomedical engineering and I really enjoy interacting with students. I enjoy the challenge and I think in turn they teach me to become a better academic,” says Ntusi.
Ntusi advises students to pursue their dreams wholeheartedly.
“I believe that we are the architects of our own future. I also believe that there is a lot of talent which is very widely distributed in society and the task really is for us to ensure that the talent meets with opportunity to allow people to achieve their full potential. And that's one of the things I hope to do in this new role as head of department.”
UCT's new head of medicine
Ntusi has been appointed as the new head of medicine from 1 November 2016.
“It's a challenge that I'm relishing,” he says.
His vision during his term as Head of Medicine is premised on five key areas where he wishes to make a difference:
“For me, this new job is about creating something of value. I am fortunate I do not have to build from scratch, but can build upon the strengths of foundations laid by my predecessors. I am very lucky to be inheriting a department that is in a very good state of health” says Ntusi.
Story Chido Mbambe. Photo Michael Hammond.
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