How an uneducated man became one of the world’s greatest surgeons

Dr Hamilton Naki Teaches Us: “You can only get more in life by saying YES!”

This is the story about a remarkable man called Dr Hamilton Naki who never attended a day of school in his life. He could neither read or write. And he obviously never went to University. Yet this man was awarded the honourary degree of MASTER OF MEDICINE from Cape Town Medical University which is respected around the world for its contribution to medicine.

This man taught over 30,000 surgeons and was an extra-ordinary teacher. The way he learnt and taught medicine surprised the human mind.

Hamilton was born in a small, quiet village in the Eastern Cape. His parents were shepherds. He wore goat skin, and he walked in the mountains barefoot all day. Until his father fell ill. So he left the sheep and goats and moved to Cape Town so he could earn money and send it home every month.

At the time they were doing construction on Cape Town University and he got a job as a labourer. He would leave home at 3:00am in the morning to walk to work. He walked 22km per day. He always got there every morning by 6:00am. He was never ever late. When the construction of the university ended he got a job as a gardener at the University. He did this for three years until the first turning point came in his life.

Professor Robert Joyce was researching giraffes and wanted to understand why a giraffe doesn’t have a seizure when it bends down to drink water. They laid a giraffe on the operating table, put it to sleep, but as soon as the operation started, the giraffe shook its head. So they needed a strong man to keep the giraffe’s neck still during the operation. The professor came out of the theatre. Hamilton was mowing the lawn. The professor saw that he was a young strong man. He asked him to grab the giraffe’s neck and hold the giraffe down. He said: “YES!”

The operation lasted eight hours. During this time, the doctor continued to take tea and coffee breaks, however Hamilton stood holding the giraffe’s neck. When the operation was over, he quietly went out and started mowing the lawn. The next day the professor called him again, he came and grabbed the giraffe’s neck and when the surgery was over, he left the building and carried on with his gardening work. His work was so good that this soon became his new routine. He worked double for many months. He never once complained and never asked for extra money.

Professor Robert Joyce was impressed by his hard work and attitude. He was promoted from Gardener to Lab Assistant. He now came to the university, went to the operating theatre and helped the surgeons. This process continued for years.

In 1958 came another turning point in his life. Dr Chris Barnard came to the university and started heart transplant operations. Hamilton became his assistant, during these operations. He soon went from Lab Assistant to Extra Surgeon. This meant that the doctors performed their operation and then Hamilton was given the task of stitching up the patients. He used to do excellent stitches. His fingers were clean and fast. He stitched fifty people in one day.

While working in the operating theatre, he began to understand the human body just as well, if not better, than the trained surgeons. So the senior doctors gave him the responsibility of teaching the junior doctors. He was a brilliant teacher who was adored and admired by all his students.

In 1970 the third turning point came in his life. Research began on the liver. Hamilton identified a very important artery during surgery which made liver transplants easier. The great minds of medical science were amazed by his knowledge. Today, when someone somewhere in the world has a successful liver transplant they can thank Hamilton!

Hamilton worked at the University for over 50 years and he never took a holiday. He died in 2005 and was buried at the University.

And you know how he achieved what he did? By saying YES! And then working hard and never giving up. If he had refused to hold down the giraffe’s neck that day, if he had said: “I am just a gardener”, he would never have become a surgeon.

This post is dedicated to my daughter, Rebecca Fryer. 

In grade 3 she had to do an oral on a marvel. We looked up the definition of a marvel and found that it was an astonishing thing or person. At the time I had just read about Dr Naki and I was utterly mesmerized about his life story and told my family all about it at dinner. She decided there are then, she wanted to do her oral on Dr Hamilton as his story is without a doubt, astonishing. The above post was the shortened version that she wrote and told her class.

Source: Wikipedia and various online articles.

Content written by Rebecca Fryer and edited by Julia Fryer.

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