Alumni Profile: J. Nozipo Maraire’92

Returning Home to Zimbabwe
J. Nozipo Maraire

What struck J. Nozipo Maraire’92 when she found her original VP&S application essay was that her reasons then for going into medicine had not changed. “I was idealistic. I always wanted to do something to help people. I wrote about wanting to give back to my country. More than anything, I had this incredible love of neuroscience.”

A board-certified neurosurgeon, Dr. Maraire lived in the United States for 30 years before returning to her native Zimbabwe. She also is an entrepreneur who is developing a smartphone app for neurosurgeons to stay informed of advances in the field. 

Dr. Maraire was born in what was known as Southern Rhodesia, a British colony. Educational opportunities were limited for blacks in Zimbabwe, and her father went abroad to college. At age 8, Dr. Maraire joined him and over the years lived in Seattle, Toronto, and Jamaica. 

After Zimbabwe became independent, Dr. Maraire went home for a brief time before continuing her education in Wales, where she earned the equivalent of a high school diploma before entering Harvard to study biology. Her fascination with how the brain is wired led her to medical school.

After graduating from VP&S, Dr. Maraire did a neurosurgery residency at Yale University, where she was one of several hundred graduates vying for the single residency spot and only the second woman to complete training there. Women represent only 5 percent of practicing neurosurgeons certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery. The numbers were even lower when she was a medical student. “I was at Columbia at a time when being a female neurosurgeon raised eyebrows,” says Dr. Maraire. “I am grateful to people like Dean of Students Linda Lewis and my student adviser, Dr. Donald O. Quest, who encouraged me to pursue my dream.”

After her residency, Dr. Maraire completed a fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at Beth Israel Hospital in New York, then worked as an attending neurosurgeon in Delaware, Ohio, and Oregon before returning to Zimbabwe in 2012 with her husband (urologist Allen Chiura) and their four children. 

Nothing could have prepared her for the vast discrepancy she found between the U.S. health care system and the resource-starved system in Zimbabwe. “The Zimbabwe hospital system is in tatters,” says Dr. Maraire. The country’s economy relies mainly on agriculture and mining, and the unemployment rate has been reported as high as 95 percent; nearly three-fourths of the population lives below the poverty line. “There are more than 14 million people in the country and only six neurosurgeons,” says Dr. Maraire. “People are dying of basic conditions.”

Dr. Maraire gave the example of a child with hydrocephalus, which put the child at risk of losing her eyesight, going into a coma, and even dying. “The treatment for hydrocephalus is such a straightforward procedure in America that a junior resident usually does it,” says Dr. Maraire. “You put a shunt in the tummy to drain water. I never thought of the cost of shunts before, but then I realized the families here can’t afford them.”

A shunt costs the equivalent of a combined monthly household income of parents in Zimbabwe. Dr. Maraire contacted Econet, an international telecommunications company that serves Africa, and pitched the idea of partnering on a shunt program at Harare Hospital. If Econet agreed to buy and donate shunts to the hospital, she would insert them for free. The program started in 2014. 

“Seeing this girl walk after she had the shunt procedure was amazing,” says Dr. Maraire. “One of the most important things I learned from my time working in the United States was to ask: ‘Who can I partner with to make a difference?’ This boldness is part of the mindset in America and has made me think outside of the box.”

Dr. Maraire’s boldest plan yet led her and her husband to build a 10-bed hospital in Harare, the country’s capital city. It will have additional specialists in orthopedics, gynecology, and general surgery. “We’re doing it ourselves, brick by brick with the little we are able to scrape together month after month,” says Dr. Maraire. “We’ll bring together the best of Western medicine and holistic African medicine in one place.”

In addition to performing surgery two days a week, Dr. Maraire runs a wellness clinic two blocks from where the hospital is being built. Then there’s the smartphone app she is creating. 

“We need neurosurgeon innovators,” says Dr. Maraire. “If we’re just technicians, we’ll be pushed out by robots. We need to be at the forefront of innovations for patients.” Conceiving the need for an app took shape over many years. Dr. Maraire found information about the latest medical treatments and resources easy to find in big U.S. cities, but when she worked in southern Oregon, she found herself in a place that medical device companies rarely visited. She felt isolated and began to think about ways to keep neurosurgeons informed. 

The goal of the app, called Cutting Edge Neurosurgeon, is to create a place where neurosurgeons can find information they need: clinical research breakthroughs, basic science articles, and recommendations for new surgical devices. The app also will have a resident education component and a way for neurosurgeons to track their certification renewals. 

The app has been tested at Weill Cornell, the European Association of Neurological Societies, and the Latin American Federation of Neurological Societies.

Dr. Maraire thrives on her “wonderful, crazy life,” as she calls it, even though striking the right balance often feels elusive. “There are days when I’m at work for 18 hours and save someone’s life and feel like a goddess of neurosurgery, but then I realize I haven’t seen my kids all day. Then there are days when I go to soccer games and cook dinner and I miss the call from the emergency room.”

True to the younger J. Nozipo Maraire who applied to VP&S nearly 30 years ago, her career has combined the best she offered in her essay: idealism, helping people, giving back to her country, and a love of neuroscience.

— Rose Spaziani