To become a certified medical doctor entails years of intense study and practice. It is no doubt that doctors are one the most respected professions in the world. It is thus an inconceivable thought that a person would become a doctor without going through the rigors of medical school and writing the series of professional exams that come with acquiring the medicine certificate.
Well, it was an exceptional case with Hamilton Naki who became a surgeon even though he never went to study in a medical school. Born into a very poor family in the small village of Ngcangane in the Eastern Cape in 1930, he could only afford a Primary education before leaving to search for a job just to survive. Fortunately, he became hired by the University of Cape Town to maintain the tennis courts on the university grounds.
In 1954, Robert Goetz of the university’s surgical faculty asked Naki to assist him with the laboratory animals and thus became a laboratory assistant as the Professor was impressed by his hardwork. From there, he started from cleaning cages to performing simple anesthesia. He also assisted in operating on a giraffe.
In 1958 came another turning point in Naki’s life. This year, Dr Christian Bernard arrived to work at the university and Naki started working for him in the laboratory as an assistant. Because of his remarkable skill and dexterity, he was then made Principal Surgical Assistant of the laboratory. Bernard once said “if Hamilton had had the opportunity to study, he would probably have become a brilliant surgeon”. He also said Naki was one of the greatest researchers of all time in the field of heart transplants.
In 1968, Bernard’s cardiac surgical research team moved out of the surgical laboratory, and Naki helped develop the piggyback or heterotopic heart transplantation technique; a heart transplant technique accomplished by leaving the recipient’s heart in place and connecting the donor heart to the right side of the chest.
In the 1970s, Naki left Bernard’s team and returned to the surgical laboratory, this time, working on liver transplantation.
He received countless awards due to his many achievements and research. He also taught many students during his career and assisted Hickman until his retirement.
He died in Langa on 29th of May, 2005 at the age of 78 of a heart attack.
Hamilton Naki’s story is a unique one that teaches we can all break through our limitations and reach the top, irrespective of our background or origin.