Vibrant, adventurous and extremely focused, paediatric surgeon Elliot Motloung from Mbombela is incredibly passionate about what he does.

Hailing from a small town in the Klein Karoo, raised by a single mother of three whom he adores, it wasn’t long after his postgraduate degree in paediatric surgery that Elliot realised a shocking fact. Out of the nine provinces in South Africa, a whopping four didn’t have access to paediatric surgical services.

Elliot Motloung

“It’s a terrible thought,” he says sadly, “that so many children have to travel so far to get surgery, at such great cost to life. At the end of 2018, I was offered the opportunity to start a new department of surgery at the University of Limpopo, which I jumped at, as it was a chance to improve access to surgery for kids in a rural setting, and to train up-and-coming young paediatric surgeons.”

Elliot thought it would end there; that he’d move into private practice and that would be that. “I approached Kiaat Hospital, as there was no paediatric surgeon in Mpumalanga, and that’s how I started my practice. But I soon realised I couldn’t sit around while so many  state patients suffered … So I approached the provincial Department of Health and outlined the situation to them, and they offered me the position to establish and head another department of paediatric surgery.”

He explains that he doesn’t see patients as private or state – children are children. “I have three of my own who have medical aid, but I understand that others don’t. My kids have access to excellent hospitals, but some don’t. When it comes to the actual clinical work of operating on children, they all need the same help, irrespective of socio-economic status or where they are born.”

Elliot continues, “I look at it this way, operating on an adult may arguably add 20 odd years to their life, but operating on a child gives them a lifetime. So just to be able to give them that fighting chance at life makes it all worthwhile.”

He adds that having the opportunity to provide support and training to junior doctors is invaluable. “Providing access to quality and equitable surgical care for kids has a massive
social impact on the future of our country. So I am determined to make Mpumalanga a place where every child has access to affordable, quality healthcare, one step at a time. I always  say that I don’t work for a private or public hospital, I work for my patients.”

Elliot is inspired by people who have lived their life sacrificing their short-term gratification for the greater good of humanity, sportsmen who train hard for years so that one day they can make their country proud, men like Muhammad Ali, and teachers whose sole aim is to see that their students become more than them.

His dream to improve healthcare for the children of the Lowveld came a little closer to coming true with the establishment and refurbishing of the new paediatric ward at Rob Ferreira Hospital, which was made possible by the help of the local community.

“People have been incredible, supporting in any way they can. Not always financially – some people gave time, others donated goods such as paint or hardware, and local plumbers and electricians offered their services for free. And this is just the start. I’m currently working on a community-sponsored project to open a paediatric burns unit at Themba Hospital, built by the people for the children of Mpumalanga.”

While you may not think he has a minute to spare (and generally doesn’t), Elliot does try to make time for adventure. A true outdoors and camping aficionado, he loves nothing more than climbing into his Defender and driving off into the distance. An intrepid traveller, every year he does a long trip, covering around 6 000km to 7 000km at a time.

“Last year I travelled through Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, five countries straight!” he chuckles. “A journey of plus-minus 6 000km draws me into my true self. It’s my time to hang out, relax and reflect. Strategise and think about how to improve things, to think of what I achieved, and how I should change and become a better person, dad and citizen. I don’t see my work as a paediatric surgeon as a job, I see it as part of my lifestyle, integrated with who I am. Wherever I go, I try to be authentic and express myself as an adventurer. Being a surgeon is just part of it, and what I live for.”

With Heritage Day coming up, Elliot muses on what he believes culture to be. “For me, Heritage Day is a time to stop and learn about the way of life of those who came before us. Not to celebrate your Sotho, Zulu, English or Afrikaans roots, for example, but rather to gain an understanding of what it means to be South African. For me, it’s about  understanding the world through the eyes of other people, and how to expand my social interactions with people who are different to me.

“I’m immersing myself in the Afrikaans culture this year, and the Xhosa culture the next. It’s lots of fun, because I become a different person every year, and I cannot tell you how many lifelong friends I have made through this, just by taking the time to understand people, their roots, their way of life and becoming a true globetrotter.”

Always on the go, our interview ended with Elliot in a mad rush to get to the airport,  leaving us with the feeling that someday this passionate and jolly fellow would indeed make the very necessary changes, giving little lives in Africa a fighting chance to grow and thrive.

Photographer: Belinda Erasmus
Venue: Mozambik, Mbombela