By Ebele Orakpo
Dr Ngozi Achebe is a US-based physician specialising in Internal Medicine. She is also an author who has written and published a novel, Onaedo, The Blacksmith’s Daughter, her debut novel and co-authored a medical textbook on ACE Inhibitors which is a group of anti-hypertensives. In this chat with Vanguard, she speaks on her job, the writing life and the COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the world.
My initial medical degree, Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), was from the University of Nigeria at the Enugu Campus. I then went on to England to start my post-graduate training which I completed in the United States. I am currently in practice in Washington State, USA.
What made you decide to become a physician?
I think it was the fact of my mother being a nurse. Her medical books were always a source of fascination for me. Going to hang out with her at work and seeing all kinds of doctors she worked with, was the final decider.
What would you consider the high points and low points of your career so far?
Medicine today, is very vast and interesting and there are very few low points. There are many more opportunities to provide meaningful help especially working in an advanced society such as the United States where most things are state-of-the-art.
Of course, the same cannot be said about practising in Nigeria. The challenges of working in Nigeria are so immense that those of my colleagues who continue to maintain peerless standards despite all those odds, deserve nothing short of extreme respect.
One remembers how Nigerian doctors rose up to the challenge of Ebola, and set an example that is still cited in the world over as a case study in disease containment. Can anyone forget how Dr Adedavo and her colleagues lost their lives while saving a nation?
You are an Internist, what is the difference between Internal Medicine and Family Medicine?
I treat adult patients who are ill in the hospital including the intensive care unit. I rarely do any outpatient work and I do not treat children. That’s the difference between an Internist and a family physician.
What’s a typical day at work like?
I am a hospital-based physician whose practice solely involves inpatients, including those in intensive care units.
My patients, therefore, are generally at the sicker end of the spectrum in any hospital. It is challenging but also interesting work.
Also, practising in a state that is ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak, makes it doubly so. But that is no different from my colleagues back in Nigeria battling Lassa fever, etc. It’s all in a day’s work.
What is the COVID-19 outbreak like in the US?
As you probably know, we’re bracing for a major onslaught of COVID-19 cases here in the USA. Epidemiological models suggest that we’re at the earliest part of a coming wave. We hope we can flatten the peak in the curve early. We’re optimistic that what is going on in Italy doesn’t happen here where their medical system has been overwhelmed but we’re ready.
Have you ever felt like throwing in the towel and why?
Not really. I have felt like pursuing other aspects of medicine that have interested me. But quitting? No!
What has kept you going and for how long have you been practising?
My love for the art and science of medicine has kept me going; also the intellectual stimulation of it. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, AI, and what lies in the future, especially cancer medicine. I have spent over 23 years in practice here in the US not even counting the few years spent in Nigeria and England. I still wake up each day loving what I do.
Are you related to the great Prof. Chinua Achebe?
Yes. The late Professor Chinua Achebe was my uncle, my father’s younger brother.
You are an author right?
How come you still have the time to write despite your tight schedule as a physician and would you say writing runs in the family?
Is writing nature or nurture? Hard to say. Growing up, Uncle Chinua himself had a father who revered the written word and he later lived with an older brother, my uncle, John, who was a teacher, and later a book agent.
Uncle John always had a huge library wherever he lived including the main family homestead in Ogidi, Anambra State.
Therefore, I was exposed to all these influences from an early age. However, I also did have the bug to write. Always had. I haven’t always indulged it though. There are more books in my head than on paper.
What inspired your first novel, Onaedo The Blacksmith’s Daughter? Have you written other books?
I was writing a book about surviving Biafra and the airlift of Biafran children. I was a Biafran child by the way. Sao Tome was one of those places the children were taken to. That Portuguese-colonized island intrigued me although I never went until much later. I decided to write about Nigeria’s Portuguese past instead. That is Onaedo, The Blacksmith’s Daughter published in 2010.
I am glad I didn’t write the Biafran book then because it’s going to be a different book now than it would have been; a different perspective.
On the medical side, I helped co-author with Professor Macaulay Onuigbo in 2014 a book titled ACE Inhibitors: Medical Uses, Mechanisms of Action, Potential Adverse Effects and Related Topics. Volumes 1&2. ACE inhibitors are a group of medicines used to treat hypertension and heart failure amongst other uses.
With the COVID-19 pandemic across nations, what measures would you advise people to take to prevent further spread?
My advice is to keep travel and gathering in crowds to a minimum.
*Avoid others if you are sick.
*Avoid handshaking, but if you do, sanitize hands with alcohol-based sanitizer or other approved sanitizers or wash hands thoroughly afterwards with soap and water.
Some of these measures are more difficult in some parts of Nigeria where water is hard to come by especially for the man on the street who barely has clean drinking water, never mind enough for hand-washing for 20 seconds.
But commonsense measures are called for.
In the United States, I follow the Centers for Disease Control, CDC for advice. In Nigeria, I suggest that for more information and regular updates, go to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control website or follow them on Twitter @NCDCgov.
How would you rate Nigeria’s education system when you were a student and what it is now?
I would say I got a great education in Nigeria from elementary right through university but like everything else in the country, the educational system has deteriorated.
I can talk specifically about medical education because through my membership of ANPA -the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas – I have had contact with young medical doctors from Nigeria and the lapses in training in some of them are glaring. One can see the deficiencies even starting from secondary education where there is an inability to write and speak in a clear and succinct way. Of course, lacking the basic infrastructure, medical practice becomes mainly theoretical. Every illness is reduced to a very basic algorithm that does not encourage original thought and theories.
Of course, like everything else, there are always the overachievers and over performers, who will thrive and break out. But the day-to-day work is not about the top 1 per cent but the 99 per cent that get the job done that are not getting a good education.