Sobodu’s Anatomy:
An ode to Black Healers

In Health and Healing by Ola Sobodu

cc: Anthea Tawiah

I can imagine a world with no pilots, with no TV producers, with no presidents or prime ministers. But I can not imagine a world without doctors, without healers. Healing has to be one of those things that humans had to figure out very early in our evolution. So when I think about medicine, and being a doctor, I am in awe, that I am on the path to practicing a profession that is as old as humans. Am I even worthy to aspire to this vocation? 

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria; raised by tenacious parents who both having PhD’s, believed in the supremacy of education. Draped in the green of my school uniform, and my thoughts firmly sewn together with the thread on my hair, I could not bear but to study the streets as they drove us to school. I remember feeling sad at what I saw on the streets of Lagos as I peered through the safety of my car window. Human beings, people, just like me, but whose life circumstances had turned them into beggars. Many of them had physical or mental disabilities. I became acquainted with one, who I now realize must have waited for our car to pass by each morning.  As we drive past him,  he waves at me and renders a reassuring smile, unfailingly. Seeing him routinely sitting at the corner of the street in his handmade aid was bitter sweet. What caused him to be handicapped, and why is he now chasing alms on the streets. Why is no one helping him? Isn’t this what doctors are for? The health care system in Nigeria is not in its best state to say the least. There are constant stories of people dying every day from otherwise manageable injuries and illnesses due to the lack of resources and inadequately trained or under motivated medics, among other factors. 

At about the same time in my life, my mother made my sister and I read the biography of Dr. Ben Carson, “Gifted hands”, during one of our summer holidays. The book told an inspiring story of perseverance and hard work; of how a young man overcame bias and hardship to become a neurosurgeon. This book introduced me to the idea of being a surgeon and enabled me to believe I could one day be a physician and even perform surgery! As a child, I hoped that one day I would be able to offer practical help to people, like my friend on the street, who have been injured, and alleviate suffering by restoring their health and physical abilities. 

I was 16 when I moved a world away from family and friends to come to Canada. I could have sworn the weight of the expectation on my shoulders was the reason my plane did not take off on time. The turbulence in the air was no match for the turbulence in my chest. I was bearing great expectations from my high achieving family, and my ambitions for myself. The next few years in Canada, I will have to overcome a new world of challenges, develop my identity, renew my values, and explore my passions. 

As a freshman I knew that beyond excelling academically, I  wanted to be very much involved in extracurricular activities, but I didn’t find balance until my final year. There were two experiences that allowed for my personal development, and eventual success. These included my honors research project-which was my first independent research experience, and taking on leadership roles in campus clubs. 

I was excited to have been able to secure an opportunity in a medical school research laboratory. As a novice working alongside experienced researchers and medical school students, I learned to gain knowledge quickly and think more critically. From developing a proposal to planning and executing a series of experiments; applying statistical knowledge learned in a classroom setting to real life scientific inquiry, and making inferences and conclusions, I found it to be an exhilarating experience, where I learned to be independent, and to exercise my deep-seated curiosity for scientific material. In many ways, research helped me appreciate the amount of stamina, diligence and persistence that is necessary for success in medical science.

During my final year of university, I was also President of two of the most active clubs on campus; African Caribbean Society and the Christian Students Fellowship. I was able to co-write and produce a show that told a story of the feast and famine of African traditions through drama, poetry, dance and music. This experience taught me a lot about what it means to be a good leader, I learnt to be a motivator and visionary in helping people break perceived barriers. My goal in driving this new idea of a theatre production was to inspire the members to not be afraid of moving beyond the norm and to share on a larger scale, the richness and diversity of the cultures of the African and Caribbean people. The show was a success met with raving reviews and awards. This was a life changing season for me, I became more aware and confident of my leadership abilities. I dreamt, I planned, and I executed, and was recognized by my peers for the impact of my dreams and my actions in their lives. 

Throughout that season, I sought experiences that exposed me to clinical and patient-centered settings. One of such was an invaluable opportunity to shadow a psychiatrist. During my visit, I sat in on psychological evaluations and patient consultations. I observed the importance of good communication skills and compassion in making a difference in a patient’s life. I also had experience volunteering in the Emergency Department for over two years, which allowed me to get further accustomed to the clinical environment. My role involved engaging with family members and escorting them through the ER to loved one’s rooms and providing assistance generally as required.  It was tough to engage with people in highly emotional states, but I learned the importance of empathy in such situations. I was blessed to have opportunities to work directly with people of all ages and diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. These opportunities were mostly ones of service which honed in me the importance of humility and compassion in interacting with others. 

Further, growing up in a country with a subpar health care system inspired my curiosity in understanding the bigger picture of medicine. So, I went on to complete a Master of Public Health degree specializing in health policy and administration. I was able to broaden my understanding of the delivery of health care services and the pervasive social, cultural, and economic factors that influence health outcomes and health care delivery systems. I hope to use these skills to take a holistic approach to patient care as a physician, and to address a variety of public health challenges and help shape the future of health policy and management.  

Being Black, was never a part of my identity in my formative years. Growing up in my motherland, I was surrounded by people who reflect me. Dark skin was the norm. It was only obvious to expect a dark-skinned Nigerian giving you care. The abundance of role models granted me free access to dream. In Canada, I would become starkly aware of myself, and differentness. 

This Blackness which I had always taken pride in was now foreign and not always seen in the best light. More so, the colonial history of my people was engaged from a different vantagepoint. My prior education in history had mainly consisted of the history of Africans, specifically Nigerians, and the effects of colonization on the country. There was mention of enslaved people but not much more on their experience once they left the shores of their motherland. Confronted with my ignorance, I learned about the realities of Black slaves, and their descendants. I learned about the insurmountable injustice and hardship that had to be endured, and the persisting effects of these ingrained systems of racism in every sphere of present-day society. Medicine is not immune to this harsh reality. I read of the stories of young Black slaves like Anarcha Westcott who was experimented upon against her will and inadvertently contributed to the advancement of the field of obstetrics and gynecology. Needless to say, her experiences were largely written out of history. Learning of these tragedies, this resilience, and their persistence, I have come to appreciate a different dimension of what it means to be Black.

I trace my lineage in Medicine not just through my family, but from a proud lineage of Black doctors, researchers, healers, and practitioners. I read about Dr. Patricia Bath, a distinguished ophthalmologist and humanitarian who was a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of blindness.  Dr. Alexa Canady, the first female African American neurosurgeon in the United States. Dr. Charles Drew, a surgeon and innovator in blood transfusions whose work led to the development of large scale blood banks which allowed medics to save thousands of lives in World War II. Similarly, Dr. Leonidas Berry, was a pioneer in gastroscopy and endoscopy, and Dr. Otis Boykin is credited for inventing the control unit of cardiac pacemakers. Dr. Samuel Kountz, developer of the Belzer kidney perfusion machine, was the first to perform a successful kidney transplant on two humans who were not identical twins. These are a few among countless other Black physicians in history, and present times, who work each day blazing the trail of innovation and demonstrating brilliance in the sciences.

Their days are fraught with barriers to overcome, as many work to advocate for our community, overturning stones of injustice as they seek to make health for all a reality. They do all of this  while navigating the burden of responsibility, striving for the elusive work-life balance, and attenuating the risk of burnout that is inherent in the practice of medicine.

Even in precarious conditions, many African healthcare workers in Africa demonstrate great resilience, vitality and innovation . Their mere existence in the field of medicine is a paradox in juxtaposition to history. Our mere existence in the field of medicine is an act of revolution. 

There are skilled surgeons like Dr. Godwin Sharau, Tanzania’s very first pediatric surgeon. Dr. Ola Orekunrin, who after suffering the loss of a family member due to lack of air transportation, founded the first medical air service in West Africa in her 20s. Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, director general of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s medical research institute, discovered the Ebola virus and made significant contributions to developing a treatment. Dr Ameyo Adadevoh, a formidable physician, who is credited widely for preventing an outbreak of Ebola in Nigeria, and Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, renowned activist, and Nobel Laureate who devoted his life to advocacy and treatment of women who have suffered sexual violence, and the numerous physicians who work in often difficult systems and continue to do the miraculous- like completing life saving operations without electricity.

Reading about the great work of these Black doctors both home and abroad, makes this little girl’s heart beam with pride. It makes the storm in my chest settle, and my flight a little bit easier. Indeed, our story through history is one that embodies the resilience of a people and parallels the resilience of the human body. So resilient, that it perseveres and strives to heal itself even in the midst of the most devastating of diseases. It parallels the resilience that is embodied by physicians who go through rigorous training and sacrifice to occupy positions that demand even more altruism. I am proud of you, Black doctors.  Our story of innovation permeates through history and even to the present day. As the world yearns for hope in a pandemic, even here at the frontlines we are represented. Even as a Black immunologist, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is credited as a key developer of the COVID Moderna vaccine. And a village of physicians, nurses, researchers and scientists find cures, and give care. 

Indeed, I seek to honor the work of all doctors and especially, Black doctors. On behalf of the lives saved, illnesses diagnosed, hopes restored, and even those working in the most difficult fields of palliative care. And on behalf of the young minds mentored, know that you are appreciated. Your work matters, your presence matters, your life matters.

In my heart, that eight-year-old aspiring doctor still lives. With less naivete, renewed pride and unbridled hope. I know my heritage. I am lifted up by the hands of centuries of healers, and fully and entirely worthy to aspire, to this most noble vocation.