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Going viral – Dr Chivaugn Gordon on a medical school with a difference

Going viral – Dr Chivaugn Gordon on a medical school with a difference
Dr Chivaugn Gordon, head of undergraduate education at UCT’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, reflects on her love of teaching future doctors about women's health issues. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

With humour and an occasional wig, Dr Chivaugn Gordon teaches medical students about serious women’s health issues. During the Covid-19 hard lockdown she delighted students at the University of Cape Town by making educational videos using household items as props. Biénne Huisman asked Gordon about her creative take on medical training, her love of teaching and sensitising students about intimate partner violence.

In one of her videos, Dr Chivaugn Gordon created an endometrium (the inner lining of the uterus) from hair gel and red glitter, performed a biopsy on a potato and showed a chicken hand puppet going into labour.

Another video features a patient named Zoya Lockdownikoff – who is a spy – consulting with her doctor about abnormal menstrual bleeding. Gordon, in a blonde wig with round sunglasses, plays Lockdownikoff, and her husband, Dr Adalbert Ernst, plays her doctor.

Lockdownikoff explains that the bleeding started when she “did a very complicated backflip to escape a very compromising situation” and that it’s ruining her expensive superspy coats. 

Gordon is head of undergraduate education at UCT’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, while Ernst is with the university’s Department of Anaesthesia and Perioperative Medicine. 

Dr Chivaugn Gordon

Dr Chivaugn Gordon is teaching the next generation of doctors about women’s needs and health issues, often using humour and props. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

Speaking from her yellow-walled lounge in Cape Town’s Bergvliet, Gordon says: “I became a doctor because I love working with patients. And then I realised, oh cool, I love teaching too. And now I can do these two things together.”

Her desire is “to produce competent, reflective, caring and socially aware junior doctors, and sensitising students to the specific needs of women in South Africa, who are often traumatised and vulnerable, and suffer from many preventable diseases”.

Interest in IPV

For Gordon a driving interest has been intimate partner violence (IPV), a subject she introduced into her undergraduate curriculum in 2015. 

“The aim is to have graduating doctors who are able to recognise intimate partner violence. Everybody thinks that you can’t possibly be abused unless you have a black eye or a fractured arm. But actually, IPV is often more psychological. It’s often psychological abuse. So the challenge is to teach young doctors what are the red flags in someone’s behaviour, or in their clinical presentation, that might indicate IPV.”

Published online in April, Gordon delivered a talk for TEDxUCT called “Tackling IPV, one awkward dad conversation at a time”, in which she notes that IPV is “a global pandemic that has been ongoing since time began”. The title refers to Gordon’s father who raised her. 

According to a paper published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry in 2022, IPV is the most common form of violence worldwide; it is most prevalent in unequal societies, and its victims are mostly women and girls. The paper states that worldwide 27% of women and girls aged 15 and older have experienced physical or sexual IPV, but in South Africa the figure is estimated to be much higher, between 33% and 50%.

Gordon contributed to South Africa’s revised Domestic Violence Amendment Act of 2021, through UCT’s Gender Health and Justice Research Unit.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Dr Lebogang Phahladira’s journey from studying by candlelight to winning a major schizophrenia research award

The new legislation broadens the definition of domestic violence to include (above and beyond physical and sexual abuse) emotional, verbal or psychological abuse, which is described as “a pattern of degrading, manipulating, threatening, offensive, intimidating or humiliating conduct towards a complainant that causes mental or psychological harm… including (repeated) insults, ridicule or name calling; (repeated) threats to cause emotional pain; the (repeated) exhibition of obsessive possessiveness or jealousy…”

Gordon highlights the term “coercive control”. “Because that underpins most serious intimate partner violence. So, somebody who is extremely controlling; they want their partner to do what they want, when they want, and how they want immediately. They normally start isolating you from friends and family so they can spin a narrative of your reality that can’t be contested by anyone else. And it also makes it more difficult to leave.”

Red flags

Gordon highlights some of the IPV red flags that doctors should look for in their patients. 

“Depression, anxiety, PTSD, insomnia [and] things like self-medicating with substances,” she says. “Because when you are living in absolute, abject terror every day of your life, it’s going to manifest in some kind of psychological manner. So, when people have been broken down and worn down and their self-esteem has been eroded, it also affects the way they might interact with the healthcare professional. 

There’s a huge amount of trauma in our country and you know, there’s that old adage that ‘hurt people, hurt people’.

“Big red flags come out in body language. Usually when someone goes to a doctor, they tell you everything about all their symptoms, because they want you to make them better. So, if you’ve got a patient who is closed off, they’re not making eye contact, they’re avoiding answering your questions, they’re just very reticent and you can’t get anything out of them… then you’ve got to think.”

Dr Chivaugn Gordon

Dr Chivaugn Gordon is passionate about sensitising doctors to the signs of intimate partner violence, which she says has been a global pandemic since the beginning of time. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

Gordon stresses that IPV happens across economic strata and in all walks of life. “Every time I run this workshop, a medical student who comes from a very privileged background, from a very financially stable, loving home, comes to me, saying this is happening to her. It happens everywhere. I’ve got medical colleagues, several, who have experienced intimate partner violence. It doesn’t discriminate.”

She notes that a key question to ask is why do perpetrators perpetrate.

“There are a lot of reasons,” she says. “As a country we come from a profoundly traumatised background. We have that massive legacy of apartheid and what that did to families, and the kind of role-modelling and examples that have resulted, which are full of alcoholism and rage against the system, which men couldn’t find ways to express so they take it out on everyone at home. There’s a huge amount of trauma in our country and you know, there’s that old adage that ‘hurt people, hurt people’. Children who have witnessed abuse, including psychological abuse, growing up are much more likely to become perpetrators or victims themselves because that’s the example that was set.”

But he kind of drilled it into me: you don’t have to get married, you’re gonna be a professional. You can stand on your own two feet.

Turning this around starts in childhood. “We need to allow boys the space to emote and to be vulnerable, we need to teach them how to deal with distress in healthy and nonviolent ways,” says Gordon. “We must teach girls that only they are in control of their bodies and minds. We have to teach children the names for their emotions, so that they can be expressed and processed properly, and we have to teach them how to self-soothe.”

Drama or medicine

Inside Gordon’s lounge on a very full bookshelf titles range from The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler to the Twilight series, which Gordon – laughing – quickly points out belongs to her husband. 

Born in Johannesburg, Gordon wanted to study either drama or medicine. She chose medicine, completing medical school at UCT in 2004. She went on to complete diplomas in mental health and HIV management, and a master’s degree in health professions education at Stellenbosch University. 

Gordon’s own childhood was largely shaped by her father. Her parents divorced when she was two years old. Then her mother died in a car accident when she was six. Gordon was in the car when the accident happened. 

“When my mom died, I lived with my dad’s mom, but he was there all the time. He was always around, always involved. He played a big role in shaping the person I became. And for somebody of his generation, he was extremely feminist and all about women’s rights, which was interesting as he’s very conservative in a lot of other ways. But he kind of drilled it into me: you don’t have to get married, you’re gonna be a professional. You can stand on your own two feet. That whole narrative of, if anybody ever tries to hurt you…”

She adds that her father managed a jewellery factory and that she was the first university graduate in their family. Gordon and Ernst have a five-year-old daughter.

Dr Chivaugn Gordon

Gordon, who completed medical school in 2004, recently delivered a talk at TEDxUCT in which she spoke about tackling IPV. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

Gordon says she started her job as medical educationalist at UCT in 2012 thanks to Professor Lynette Denny, former head of the university’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. At the time, Gordon had been working at the Khayelitsha Cervical Cancer Screening Project, run by Denny, while also offering part-time colposcopy classes (on examining the cervix) at Groote Schuur Hospital. These classes were so popular with students that Gordon was offered the job.

“The drama which I never pursued officially, I guess it now comes out in my teaching,” she says. “I love standing in front of classrooms, inspiring students.”

In a paper reflecting on her lockdown e-learning experience, published in the African Journal of Health Professions Education, Gordon notes: “I learnt in the truest sense that students really respond positively to authenticity, effort and off‑the‑wall humour… They enjoyed the novelty of seeing a teacher in their home environment, with all the interruptions of pets and children.” DM

This article was produced by Spotlight – in-depth, public interest health journalism.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Cheryl Siewierski says:

    She is clearly a wonderwoman with an enormous heart, fantastic agenda, and a brilliant sense of humour. South Africa could use more of this kind of news. It’s by these apparently small steps that we can slowly but surely try to ‘fix’ some of what ails society, so thank you for reporting on this.

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