When asked how many tuberculosis (TB) patients she’s treated over the past 20 years in Kazakhstan, Dr. Zhenisgul Daugarina smiled before giving numbers for just the past three.
"Over the past three years, 268 patients have been discharged from (our) MDR/XDR-TB treatment department, and another 568 have been transferred to other units to continue treatment," she said.
Daugarina was referring to patients with multi-drug-resistant or extreme-drug-resistant TB at the primary TB hospital in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital.
Extrapolating those numbers over nearly two decades—the length of Daugarina’s career so far—reflects a love for medicine that spans a lifetime.
She was born on May 8, 1974, in the Kazakhstan village of Karasu. Daugarina’s given name translates in Kazakh as "flower of victory," a description that matches her power, unconquerable character and determination.
Her dreams of becoming a doctor began in childhood. After graduating from secondary school in 1991, in the town of Arkalyk, Daugarina entered the State Medical Institute of the city of Tselinograd, which now is Astana.
Daugarina took the next step in her education in 1997, when she began clinical residency in the institute’s Department of Phthisiology, which oversees treatment of TB of the lung. She began working as a TB doctor in the pulmonary-therapeutic department at the same time.
Daugarina got firsthand experience of one of TB’s deadliest incubators from 1999 to 2002, when she worked as a TB doctor in a Kazakhstan prison. Many inmates in Central Asia and Eastern Europe at that time—and in some cases, still today—faced extremely crowded conditions that were highly conducive to TB transmission, and inmates who developed active TB while incarcerated could spread the disease at home after their release.
During her time as a prison doctor, Daugarina became particularly interested in how inmates responded to the grueling TB treatment regimen. That study would become a career—in February 2002, Daugarina became head of the MDR/XDR-TB treatment department in the TB Dispensary of Astana. She still holds that position today.
"Patients are all different,” she said. "Sometimes they are very sick, and some of them die after they are admitted to the hospital. You always try to think that it could be your family member in place of this person. Anyone can get sick.”
Daugarina’s personal attention to care is easy to see in the Astana hospital, where patients often call her, “Mom.” At first, the parental interaction can sound unusual, or like a joke. But it soon becomes obvious that Daugarina really is like a mother to her patients, who sometimes feel lost after being diagnosed with severe strains of TB. Daugarina saves their lives, fates, marriages and more, and asks nothing in return.
The experienced doctor acknowledged the risks and challenging circumstances of her job, but said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
"My job is my lifestyle,” she said. “I love my patients…and I would not change my profession."
—Yekaterina Sakhabutdinova, PIH endTB Observational Study Manager in Kazakhstan