It takes a special kind of person to achieve their goals despite adversity and repeatedly being told they not capable of doing so. Gary Felix is a special kind of guy.
Gary grew up on the wrong side of the track in Mitchells Plain in Cape Town. His father worked on the railways and his mother was sickly, suffering from Anorexia Nervosa and Emphysema. At school, he was surrounded by negative influences and many of his friends became gangsters. Gary had not motivation other than to just finish school. His father was retrenched in his matric year (2004) and Gary was just happy to pass and get a job as a cleaner and packer at Pfizer (later to become Johnson and Johnson).
While working with pharmacists and doctors, he started wanting to learn more and the company sent him on training courses. He became a quality technician, but it was when his mother died in 2008, he became interested in medicine. “I wanted to know why science failed my mother,” says Gary. “Somehow, the doctors didn’t pick up on her emphysema…”
He started doing research on what it would take to redo his matric and get into medicine. As soon as he could, he redid his matric at an adult learning centre. His colleagues at Pfizer sent him to a career consultant and people kept trying to dissuade him from his goal of getting into medicine, saying how many top scholars don’t get in… “Countless times I heard how hard it is to get in and how many people applied and didn’t make it. Everyone seemed to have a reason for me to give up my dream,” Gary says.
But somehow, despite confidence not being his strong point, he kept on at it. He finished his matric in 2010 with four distinctions, including 92% for maths and 75% for physics. He applied for medicine at Stellenbosch and was accepted in 2011 for 2012. “The company didn’t want to let me go and asked me to stay an extra year and they would help me financially. So, I agreed to start in 2013.
“Getting into medicine was my dream, but I didn’t really believe I could do it. I wanted to prove people wrong about me. Truth is, people were shocked that I got in, but so was I,” says Gary, who by then was a supervisor.
While at Pfizer, Gary got married to Mauricia and they had a son. At the end of 2012, Pfizer told Gary that they would retrench him, which meant he would get a good package. That was the ‘help’ they were giving him. He walked away with R100 000, which unfortunately went to pay his many debts he had accumulated.
“I paid my university registration fee with the last of the money and did whatever I could to try and get a bursary or a loan,” he says. “I had a lot of disappointments in my attempts got get funding. I had a lot of ‘no’s’. By March, I had no money left and no idea how I was going to pay for the rest of the year, let alone the rest of the degree.”
On March 17, he got a call from the financial aid officer at Stellenbosch University to say he had been awarded a Moshal Scholarship. “I had no idea what the Moshal Scholarship was, but I was told it would cover my whole degree.
“I was shocked, elated and all I could do was stand and stare,” he says. “It was the very first time in my life that I felt that someone believed in me. I had an exam the next day, but I couldn’t study or sleep, I was just so amazed. I was going to be able to fulfill my dream.”
Having the Moshal Scholarship Program behind him, he says, “I was now even more motivated in every possibly way to do well. I am still amazed, we don’t live in a world where people give anything away and now I am in an environment where someone believed in me enough to do this for me and all I have to do is help others in some way.”
When he told his father, who he says didn’t know much about university, he says: “My dad was so proud of me and told me I am the first person in the family to have a dream like this and never give up. He couldn’t believe that I am going to become a doctor.
“Becoming a doctor may be my dream, but I am ultimately doing this for my son, Rucian, who is six. When I was growing up, I didn’t get anything other than necessities and I want him to have more. I want him to have birthday parties.
“I don’t want him to struggle for an education.”
Although Gary and his family no longer live in ‘ganglands’, most of his old friends are still in gangs. “There are a lot of people from that area who are really proud that I have done this and others who still can’t believe I am studying to be a doctor.”
He has another four years and then he wants to specialize in ear, nose and throat medicine.
But despite the challenging schedule and degree, Gary spends evenings working in his community, mentoring adult learners in maths. “I keep them motivated in going for their goals and up to date with their studies,” he says. “I have helped a few people get into university, people like me who went back to do matric so they could become someone. They often come back and tell me of their achievements and I am so proud.”
Looking around him, Gary still can’t believe he is actually going to be a medical doctor. “I went to a patient recently and he referred to me as doctor and I stood for a while thinking it and absorbing it.”
Gary is now 30, older than most of the Moshal Scholars, but no less grateful. “I feel totally indebted and although I don’t have to pay the money back, I want to give it back so that I can help someone else get what I got.”