Giving Back to UCT Medical Students: from students who met at UCT to successful professionals and generous benefactors

10 Apr 2024
Cyrus and Zena
10 Apr 2024
Cyrus and Zena

Dr Zena Potash, an adolescent psychiatrist and Dr Cyrus Mancherje, an interventional cardiology specialist, (pictured above) who are based in California, took time out of their busy holiday schedule in Cape Town, to share the story of their beginnings at UCT as medical students, to highly regarded medical professionals and generous benefactors who are making a significant difference in the lives of UCT medical students, who they are funding.

Where the journey started

Zena and Cyrus started at UCT medical school in 1972.  Cyrus initially got into medical school at Stellenbosch and was not happy but was finally accepted by UCT and was very delighted to be studying there.  The couple met during their first year at UCT, outside the Physics laboratory.  Cyrus comments, “I went up to Zena to talk to her as she had long wavy hair and was dressed in a purple leather pant suit from Carnaby street in London and looked different from and more attractive than all the other women medical students”. Zena’s take on meeting was, “Cyrus was one of the most handsome men I had ever seen, with a resemblance to Cat Stevens. He was definitely one of the most handsome in the medical school class. He was tall, dark and handsome with the most beautiful eyes and gentle manner and a contagious laugh”.  For both of them, it was love at first sight…

Once they had started dating, they discovered that their families knew each other from a very long way back and that in fact their grandfathers had been neighbours in District Six.

On completing their medical degrees, Zena and Cyrus moved to the UK to do their internships and got married there.   Cyrus highlights how the grounding and clinical training he received at UCT medical school was outstanding and equipped them with the capacity to work hard.  In England while working as a locum, other professionals often said to him, ‘Wow you know how to do this?’ and commented on his capacity to do such a range of different things.  He says his training at UCT really put him in good standing in the UK and USA.  Zena echoed this, commenting that their clinical training at UCT medical school equipped then with the capacity to work hard and gave then a solid grounding.  They decided the UK wasn’t going to be their future, so from there they moved to the USA and completed their specialization training in Boston.  Thereafter they moved to the bay area in San Francisco in California, to be in an environment that reminded them of living in Cape Town.

Careers in the USA

Both Zena and Cyrus work part time in California, with retirement clearly a long way off.  Zena works as an adolescent psychiatrist and is also very involved in the field of advocacy. She was president of the Northern Californian Psychiatric Association and is currently on the state psychiatric lobbying committee, working to improve mental health care for homeless people, many of whom were denied care when mental institutions were shut down.  She is hoping her advocacy work will have impact on social situations in California.

Zena describes Cyrus as being a very logical person with excellent innate executive, organizational skills, a strong work ethic and capacity to work hard. He is very involved in his profession of interventional cardiology and is currently following 4000 of his cardiac patients.   In the area where Cyrus was working, there was no full-service cardiovascular programme, so he started one up a decade ago and is very proud of the cardiovascular programme he set up, which includes surgery and acute myocardial treatment. He attributes much of his success to the excellent grounding he received at UCT, the strong clinical training and the logical and strong approach to facing clinical challenges. 

Why do Zena and Cyrus donate to UCT?
“We come from privilege, we had a great education and want to share what we have.  We both came from families that value giving back.” says Cyrus.  Zena comments, “Both of our families have a tradition of doing that…we want to give back to the local community specifically the Cape Flats.  It was inculcated in us from a young age that education was crucial.  That is why we give back.  We want to spread the opportunity for youngsters who don’t have the families and resources behind them.  It takes eighteen years of opportunity, resources, education, values and building in order to be able to apply yourself at university.  Medical school is gruelling both academically and emotionally”.  

Describing the circumstances in which her parents were raised, Zena comments, “my parents grew up in abject poverty and when they were able to develop resources, they always gave back. We were reared with the values that this is what you do when there is need around you. You can’t live in a world where there is extreme inequality and ignore how you can affect change that will impact everybody’s quality of life”.  This attitude and approach to philanthropy learned from their parents clearly provides a powerful impetus to be attuned to the needs of others around them and to share their wealth and privilege generously.

Cyrus reiterates, “it is important to give back, to help people with the academic process and with resources.  To assist students who academically and mentally have the capacity but don’t have the financial resources.  We picked the in-between students who had academic potential but didn’t get scholarships and could possibly not make it through medical school because of the financial burden.  It is extremely gratifying to see these students blossoming and succeeding”.

Surrogate parenting: Seeing students develop and blossom.

Zena and Cyrus with students

Kuhle Sibotho, Zena, Aamirah Domingo, Kyra Ormond and Cyrus

Cyrus and Zena say it has been really fulfilling to see how the three medical students they have sponsored have blossomed and developed during the time they have been funding them.  Zena describes, “When we first met them in 2021, the students were tentative, young and naïve.  Last year when we met up with them, they were becoming confident and competent adults.  It was amazing and fulfilling for us to see – almost as though we were surrogate parents!  Being part of that growth is a wonderful reward for us.  It inspires us to encourage our children to give back to others.

Giving back to UCT

They started donating and giving back to UCT when Stuart Saunders, who was their lecturer, was the Vice-Chancellor.  Then when Mamphela Ramphele was Vice-Chancellor, they continued to sponsor students.  In the last few years, they have increased their giving and have been covering the full expenses of three students completing their medical degree at UCT.  Going forward they are planning to make this an annual scholarship.

Cyrus and Zena explained how it is easier for them to give back now because they have finished putting their own three children through university.  Their university fees in the USA were exorbitant, and now that that is behind them, they are in a better position of financial liquidity to give back to others.   When they studied at UCT, the cost of medical school was R800 a year and now it is approximately R103 000 – which is a huge stretch for most families under the current financial crisis in South Africa. And this in a country that really needs more medical students.

Zena and Cyrus are highly invested in giving back and seeing UCT as an institution succeed, despite some of the many recent challenges it has faced.   Zena explains how important it is for a university institution to feel like it is holding its students – to be a safe place for adolescents, who are vulnerable. They shared how they want to help UCT maintain its standing and reputation, which catapulted them successfully in their own careers.  “We are disappointed at some people pulling back from UCT because of the recent challenges.  We think a better way to deal with that is to encourage support and good leadership”, said Cyrus.