• Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

The amazing story of Dr Philip Ozuah

Philip Ozuah (1)

There are many ways to tell the story of Dr Philip Ozuah, a renowned Nigerian paediatrician who holds one of the most important and prestigious clinical and administrative positions in healthcare anywhere in the world.

There is a circulating video of the 2023 Gala event of the American Institute of Stuttering, and Ozuah is the distinguished recipient of the ‘Freeing Voices, Changing Lives’ award. The annual event honours people who live with stuttering, a condition that some people find socially and educationally crippling. Award winners, according to the host, are people who have excelled in their chosen careers without allowing their natural speech impediment to get in their way.

In your social and professional life, you have encountered several people with this speech problem, which is often present from childhood. Some among them find themselves consigned to a life of misery as the butt of cruel jokes and put down by peers and superiors as they struggle to pronounce some common words. There are remedial techniques that improve the condition, but these require persistence and commitment on the part of the person.

“Phillip Ozuah was born in Lagos. He obtained his medical degree from the University of Ibadan in 1995. He emigrated shortly after to the USA to continue his studies.”

Sometimes the disadvantage is transformed into a positive advantage that could be startling. For example, there is the story of General Ike Nwachukwu, the man with perhaps the best accent and articulation among his generation of Nigerian Army officers, and a man who, by his admission, had a stutter early on. Over time, he learned to turn his speech disadvantage around. Tall, with an imposing military bearing, his authority on every occasion is accentuated by his clipped, precise elocution.

Philip Ozuah, at the event, is introduced as a man who has dedicated his working life to improving healthcare for the most vulnerable citizens in New York and elsewhere. A paediatrician in the South Bronx, a dedicated researcher focused on solving children’s issues unique to the environment, which is known for low income, high crime, and a preponderant black population, a professor and university chairman in paediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and a physician-in-chief of Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. Currently, he is the CEO and President of Montefiore Einstein, overseeing 13 hospitals, 300 ambulatory sites (clinics), and 7.5 million patient encounters a year.

Phillip Ozuah was born in Lagos. He obtained his medical degree from the University of Ibadan in 1995. He emigrated shortly after to the USA to continue his studies.

In his first month at his new hospital, he encountered a male senior doctor who made fun of his stutter. That same month, another female superior he worked with wrote in his report that he was unintelligent and unworthy to be in that institution, scoring him low on everything, including his dressing and appearance. Though his name was Philip, he observed that people often called him Peter, mistaking him for another colleague from Nigeria.

His struggle in that first year, as he would recount later, was to get people to recognise him for who he was and to call him by his own name in this high-tech stranger’s land six thousand miles from Ibadan, where he trained, from Lagos, where he was born, and from Anambra State, where his family hailed from.

Thirteen years later, he would recall riding in the lift to his upstairs office in the same hospital. A voice greeted him from the corner.

‘Good morning, Dr Ozuah’. It was the doctor who had scored him zero, down to his dressing, when he first started work in New York.

It was grass to grace, epitomised.

The lady doctor was not only calling the Nigerian by his correct name this time; she was also calling him by his surname, in deference to the fact that he was now Professor, University Chairman, and Physician in Chief, as shown on the name tag on his white coat.

She had sought to kill his spirit, perhaps out of racism, perhaps in casual disdain for this immigrant from Nigeria who spoke English with a stutter and an Ibo accent. He watched as she squeezed herself into the corner of the lift. Perhaps she was wondering if he remembered her previous cruelty to him. He remembered all too well, though ten thousand doctors now worked under him, including herself and the male counterpart who had mocked his stutter.

Philip had not grown up to have a chip on his shoulder about his stutter but to embrace it because he realised it deepened his listening ability as a doctor and enhanced his empathy and humility.

All these attributes came into play in his meteoric rise in the system, culminating in his appointment in 2019 as CEO of Montefiore Medicine, the umbrella organisation for the Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

He rounds up his speech to the audience in the video by telling a story from the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi, the story of the lame and dreamy goat who walks, deliberately, at the back of the herd as they go to the water to drink. As they turn to return, he is now the leader of the pack, the one destined to lead the pack home.

Philip Ozuah has set himself the mission of implementing a system that delivers quality health care affordably and sustainably in a low-income environment. He has provided, through research, outcomes-based evidence to prove the superiority of the Montefiore-Einstein model over Medicare, the system that provides healthcare for the vulnerable across America. Nigerian healthcare planners would do well to take a look at his ideas.

Philip is proud of his country of origin and his adoptive country. He is a detribalized Nigerian philanthropist who has donated the princely sum of one million dollars for the upliftment of his alma mater, the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan.

His life is evidence that dreams, truly, can come true.