The Return of Neo Tapela

Tapela calls on patients in Lesotho.
Tapela calls on patients in Lesotho.

By Martha Henry

Neo Tapela was born in 1980 at Princess Marina Hospital, or Marina as the locals call it, the largest public hospital in Botswana. When she was 14, the aunt who raised her was diagnosed with breast cancer. Marina diid not have sufficient oncology services, so her aunt had to travel four hours by car to South Africa for surgery and chemotherapy treatments. She later died at Marina.

The experience made the teenage Tapela want to become a doctor. She did well in school and received a scholarship to attend Milton Academy in the U.S. She went on to Wellesley College, where she majored in Biological Sciences and African Studies.

In her sophomore year, Tapela sent an email to Max Essex asking about the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP). They met for just ten minutes, but Tapela left Essex’s office with a BHP summer internship. “It was immediately clear that Neo was energetic and bright,” said Essex. “She was going to do great things. I just wanted to steer her to AIDS research and back to Botswana.”

Working as a lab assistant in Gaborone, she processed specimens for HIV tests and got a direct look at the effect of HIV in Botswana. “Seeing nearly 50% of those plates turning pink, which indicated a positive result, left an indelible mark,” said Tapela. “Frankly, it traumatized me, but also solidified my commitment to working in health to serve my people.”

Tapela arrived at Harvard Medical School in 2002. Over the next eight years, she learned medicine in state-of-the-art teaching hospitals in Boston, but also found time to return frequently to Africa. In the summer of 2003 she worked for Botswana’s new national HIV/AIDS treatment program at Marina. She returned again in 2005 for a rotation in the internal medicine ward. During her residency years, she worked for Partners In Health in Haiti, Lesotho, and Rwanda. She also completed an internship at the World Health Organization in Geneva and earned an MPH in Clinical Effectiveness at the Harvard School of Public Health.

And true to her teenage commitment, Dr. Tapela recently returned to work in Botswana. She teaches at the newly established University of Botswana School of Medicine (UBSOM). She also serves as an attending physician at Marina and is engaged in hospital-wide initiatives for quality improvement.

At Marina, the staff is stretched, supplies are often out of stock, broken equipment goes unrepaired, and clean linens are not always available. “All that being said, these are universal frustrations in resource-limited settings,” said Tapela. Her experiences in working throughout Africa are helpful. “You can be successful in making changes because you’ve seen what’s been done in other places. You have the perspective that this problem is shared in many different facilities.”

More than 50% of patients admitted to Marina are HIV positive. Tapela is interested in exploring the links between HIV and non-communicable diseases. She is the Principal Investigator on a study examining the role of HIV as an independent risk factor for stroke in Botswana. Dr. Shahin Lockman, her mentor at the Harvard AIDS Initiative, said, “I am unfailingly impressed by Neo’s intelligence, compassion, and capacity to achieve progress on multiple fronts. She’s a star.”

Tapela with her husband on her wedding day
Tapela with her husband on her wedding day

It hasn’t been all work. This February Tapela married a fellow doctor who works as the Country Director in Rwanda for Partners In Health. The traditional Botswana wedding process, according to Tapela, is a long and arduous one, taking up to a year of meetings, negotiations and a good measure of drama. “My family gave the groom’s family a bit of a hard time, which is expected!” she laughs. There was an exchange of gifts, including eight cows, and plenty of dancing and ululation.

“Our jobs are both very demanding,” says Tapela. “We are definitely in the process of trying to figure out how to, first of all, live in the same country and to find that balance between career and family.”

Right now Tapela is busy seeing patients, teaching students, and developing curriculum for the new medical school. She is happy to be home and enjoys spending time with friends and family. “I have so many years of catching up to do,” she says.

She sees herself as a global health clinician with particular identification with Africa as a whole. In the future she hopes to contribute to health systems policy in Africa.

“There is no way a daughter of a single mother of lower middle class background in Botswana would end up where I am today just through intrinsic talents or what have you,” she said. “I have been tremendously blessed and with that comes a responsibility to make the best use of the opportunities that I’ve been given.”