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Aviation doctor’s career takes flight

Updated: Oct 1, 2018

Dr Lesego Bogatsu, the senior manager of aviation medicine at the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA),

Dr Lesego Bogatsu, who has established herself as one of South Africa’s inspirational women leaders, acknowledges that it was the actions of a group of women in 1956 that revolutionised the way women are viewed in our country today.

South Africa recently commemorated the 1956 march, which saw over 20 000 women petition the then Prime Minister JG Strijdom for the abolition of passes. This historic event not only had a huge impact then, but its significance continues to be seen today. The actions of these women opened doors of opportunity for generations of women to come.

Dr Lesego Bogatsu, the senior manager of aviation medicine at the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), said she would not have gone to medical school had these women not stood their ground.

“I also would not be in the position that I am in without the commitment and contribution of these women.

“In order to honour their contribution, we really need to respect every opportunity that is afforded to women in this country and push for more,” she said.

Dr Bogatsu, a successful designated aviation medical examiner (DAME), was born and raised in Dobsonville, Soweto, where one of her earliest memories is walking with her grandmother and cousin during the 1976 riots.

“All I can remember is the smoke from the teargas,” she said

She grew up with entrepreneurial parents, who made the importance of education clear. After leaving George Khoza High School she headed to Florida, in the United States of America, to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.

In 1995 she came back to South Africa and enrolled at the Free State University Medical School.

“It was extremely tough, as there were only eight black students and an estimated 150 white students. As a result, a couple of my classmates and I decided to move to Medunsa (now called Sefako Makgatho University) after failing our third year and fearing that we would not complete our studies,” she said.

Dr Bogatsu not only completed her MBChB but was awarded an academic prize for internal medicine. She then completed her Master’s degree in Public Health at the University of Pretoria.

Aviation medicine, in which Dr Bogatsu specialises, combines aspects of preventive, occupational, environmental and clinical medicine with the physiology and psychology of man in flight. It is concerned with the health and safety of those who fly, both crew and passengers, and the selection and performance of those who hold aviation licences.

In South Africa, prior to 1999 and the establishment of the SACAA, all civilian medical certification processes applicable to aviation personnel and training of DAMEs was conducted by the Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM). The IAM is a unit of the South African Military Health Service, which forms part of the National Department of Defence.

At the time, the National Department of Defence was performing the functions on behalf of the National Department of Transport, without cost or an official memorandum of agreement.“The decision was based on the limited expertise in the civilian environment in aerospace medicine,” said Dr Bogatsu.

Initially, all of the functions relating to the medical certification processes for civilian personnel were centralised at the IAM. The system was later decentralised, resulting in the designation of civil aviation medical examiners responsible for medical examinations of civilian aviation personnel and issuing medical certificates.

“This continued until 1999 when the International Civil Aviation Organisation conducted an audit and recommended that South Africa, through the SACAA, establish an in-house medical department to oversee all medical certification processes and training.”

In her current role, Dr Bogatsu is responsible for the oversight of medical certification processes, on behalf of the director of civil aviation, including the designation and training of medical examiners; drafting regulations; oversight of air ambulance operations; oversight of first-aid training, examiners and instructors; and oversight of the Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation at airports and airlines, among others.

“I love that my job is technically challenging and forces me to get out of my comfort zone,” said Dr Bogatsu.

She explained that over the years she was forced to learn and understand aviation personnel operational conditions, such as aircraft configurations and engineering, air traffic controllers’ occupational environments and the newly introduced remotely-piloted aircraft systems.

“This has helped me to under- stand how crucial medical condi- tions are and how greatly they can impact on aviation safety,” she said.

Being a DAME does come with its challenges. Dr Bogatsu explains that on one hand you have an applicant (pilot, cabin crew or air traffic controller) whose livelihood depends on having a valid medical certificate; on the other you have business owners who run their companies while complying with the SACAA legislation.

“This can create a conflict of interest that has to be managed by the SACAA and examiners. DAMEs have to ensure that they are familiar with the medical standards applicable to aviation personnel and the risks that must be averted by ensuring that a medical certificate is awarded to deserving and compliant clients,” she said.

Another challenge that medical examiners face is ensuring that the thousands of passengers who fly daily are protected during take-off, cruising and landing.“Incapacitation can occur randomly. Being part of a team that prevents public health events from infiltrating South Africa through air travel is a major responsibility because not con- ducting our functions properly can lead to a loss of life.”

The SACAA operates in a global space and aviation is continuously evolving. As a result, it continuously affords its employees opportunities to be innovative, identify gaps in the system and propose interventions.

“One of the interventions that I have been afforded an opportunity to lead is the Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation,” said Dr Bogatsu, who describes this as a highlight of her career.

The programme was established by the World Health Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.“I was appointed as one of the technical advisors for the United Nations, which allowed me to travel around the African continent training other countries and helping them to set up a relevant legislative framework,” she confirmed.

One of her aspirations for the future is to assist in the transformation of the aerospace medicine field, by creating awareness around it in previously disadvantaged communities.

She urged women to focus on what they want and be passionate about what they do.“Money and recognition will follow. Be well informed, read, research and ask questions because experts are always willing to share information,” she said.

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