by J.R. Chapell, NAACP Health Chair
Please tell us about your background. I was born and raised in South Central Nigeria in a town called Enugu. Our primary language in Nigeria is English and there are 200 other languages as well. The other language I speak is Igbo. My dad is a doctor (now retired) and my mom is a pharmacist. My immediate family is all in the U.S. and while we are a close family, we are spread out in terms of geography. I am the 2nd of 5 children (4 girls,1 boy). We lost my immediate younger sister in a car accident in Nigeria in 2011.
At age 17 (after I graduated from high school) I moved to Michigan and lived with extended family. As we all moved to the US we began working towards getting green cards. Getting a green card is a long and complicated process that took 15 years.
When did you realize you wanted to be a doctor? I would go with my dad when I was 8 or 9 years old to the hospital and I loved what he did as an Internist. He was able to help people who were in very difficult times. Although I didn’t decide then to be a brain surgeon, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. After moving to Michigan, I went to undergrad school in Arizona and studied biology as a major and astronomy as a minor. I then went to medical school in Arizona where I really enjoyed the neurosciences. I had also figured out that I wanted to practice procedural medicine and did my residency at the University of California, San Diego, in Neurosurgery. Following my residency, I did a fellowship at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. After finishing there I came to Springfield and have been here 5.5 years. I am passionate about surgery on brain tumors and the difference I can make in people’s lives.
What barriers have you had to overcome? When people say to me, “It’s not rocket science” or “it’s not brain surgery”, those statements make me want to do those things they imagine to be impossible. Being taken seriously in the very male dominated field of neurosurgery has been challenging. I think I have accomplished that, through hard work and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. But also through maintaining a compassionate touch with my patients through, for most of them, possibly the most difficult time of their lives.
What are your hobbies? My hobbies include traveling, reading and hanging with my German Shepherd, Ozzie. I am also an avid sports fan.
Have you ever faced any racism here? I have been blessed in that, although I’ve had to overcome hardships from being an immigrant, I have never encountered overt racism. While Springfield is not necessarily a culturally diverse place, the medical community, which is essentially my family here, is quite diverse.
Where do you see yourself in ten years? I really love what I do, I have a passion for the work. I suppose I would like to see more growth in Mercy. We need to hire and keep more nurses and scrub techs. After they get training and experience they tend to move on. I would also like to see us have 15-20 neurosurgeons in the region.
Do you have any guidance for youth? I’m not sure you can find anything more fulfilling than medicine. You can help people in their most vulnerable times and change their lives for good.