ASH Clinical News ACN_5.1_Digital - Page 13

UP FRONT Pulling Back the Curtain Ifeyinwa (Ify) Osunkwo, MD, MPH In this edition, Ify Osunkwo, MD, MPH, talks about her childhood in the Bronx and Nigeria, growing up with four sisters, and the friendship that persuaded her to specialize in sickle cell disease. Dr. Osunkwo is a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the director of the Sickle Cell Disease Enterprise at Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dr. Osunkwo (second from right) with her husband and their three children. What was your first job? When I was 13 years old, I worked as a kitchen aide at a private hospital in a small town in Nigeria, where my mother, who was a nurse, ran her own licensed practi- cal nursing school. She provided nurses for the hospital when they needed staff- ing and referred patients to them. So, when I was looking for a job, she went to the hospital CEO and said, “My daughter wants to go to medical school – can she come and work at your hospital to get experience?” He agreed, but the only available po- sition was in the kitchen. So, I worked there for a summer, then transferred to the pharmacy the next summer, and then worked as a nursing aide the summer af- ter that. I completed my licensed practical nursing training and worked on the nurs- ing staff at the hospital before I ever went to medical school. Did you always know you wanted to go into medicine? I remember the specific moment when I fell in love with medicine: When I was about 4 years old, I had a severe asthma attack and my parents had to take me to the pediatrician, who was a sweet, older gentleman. I took the medicine he gave me and – boom – I felt better. It was like magic! So, that was when I knew I wanted to be a physician. Medicine was all around us growing up; my parents were both in- volved in health care (my dad was a medi- cal lab tech), and I had two older sisters who also wanted to attend medical school. Initially, I thought about becoming a pul- monologist so that I could treat asthma, but that idea lasted about a month after my oldest sister died of a severe asthma attack during my second preclinical year of medical school. After that, I fell in love with hematology. What was it that made you fall in love with hematology, and even- tually with treating patients with sickle cell disease? My earliest memory of becoming aware of hematology was spending time with my mom. I was a homebody, so I went with my mom when she held community health education events, where she would raise awareness about sickle cell disease and make sure families had penicillin and folic acid and that children were vaccinated. My sisters and I would go with her whenever she went into the community, which even sometimes meant going onto offshore oil platforms to give vaccines and teach about prevent- ing anemia from malaria using mosquito nets. That was when I started think- ing, Hematology is all kinds of cool. Then, when I went to medical school, it so hap- pened that every time I started a new rotation I was assigned to a hema- tologist. If I was on a pediatric rotation, I was with a pediatric hematologist. It was like fate. To cap it all off, I had a good friend who was living with sickle cell disease. I met him my first year of college and he ended up dying the year I graduated. He had six younger brothers, all with sickle cell disease and all of whom died while I was in school. When he died, I was dev- astated, and I looked at this family and thought, “This shouldn’t be happening. When you hear ‘sickle cell’ in Nigeria, it is like a death sentence. That’s just unaccept- able to me. We should be able to do better than this.” What brought you from Nigeria to the U.S.? Well, my four sisters and I were all born in the U.S. My parents are both from Nigeria, and my dad came to the states on a scholarship in the 1960s. My mom joined him, they were married in New York City, and my four sisters and I were all born in the Bronx, New York. When I was 7 years old, my dad decided he was tired of New York and the cold weather, so he went back to Nigeria. We stayed in the U.S. for one more year, then joined him in Nigeria. What was your childhood like, growing up with four sisters? It was fun – except that my mother used to dress us alike … When we were in New York, the area we lived in was mostly Caucasian, and we were the only black family. Sometimes we felt a bit weird, and there were racial tensions, but we were not happy when we left the Bronx to join my father in Nigeria. Once we got there, though, it was great! We were treated like princesses – the interesting “new kids” who spoke with funny Yankee accents. My parents divorced a few years later, so my mom ended up raising us on her own. Money – and space – was tight. To get through it, I poured myself into school. Middle school and high school were a blur because I was focused on where I wanted to go, and that didn’t stop once I got to medical school; it was all about achieving and being the first in my class. After graduating from medical school and completing a yearlong internship in Nigeria, I came back to the U.S. – earning my master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University, doing my residency at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), and completing my fellowship at Columbia University. What lessons has your work life taught you? Are there any pieces of advice that you would share with younger hematologists? The first thing I learned is appreciating the different personalities of everyone who works in a hospital. Not everybody is like me, and that’s OK. Everything I do, I do with a lot of passion, and I can be pretty intense. Other people might not get as excited as me, but that doesn’t mean that they are less effective or not as interested in the work as I am. Throughout my career, I’ve also learned that it is okay to fail. I’m a com- petitive person with myself and with oth- ers – probably because I was the middle of five kids and I had to fight to get a piece of pie before it was all gone – but eventually, I learned that I don’t have to get an ‘A’ all the time. What I might think of as failures are learning opportunities. For example, I failed my first pediatric hematology/oncology board exam, which brought me a lot of shame and fear, but my competitive nature kicked in and I was able to retake it successfully. I’ve also been rejected for so many grants that I stopped counting; each of those rejec- tions, though, just made me better at writing the next grant. ASH Clinical News 11