My name is Dr. Uchenna Umeh, and I am an immigrant (physician).
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be an architect. My journey to becoming a physician started somewhat as a dare. I was born in Nigeria, the first child of six children from middle-class parents. My father served in the Nigerian air force; my mother was a banker.
Towards the end of my secondary education (I attended an all-girls boarding secondary school), my father asked me the natural question,
“So what are you going to study in the university?”
I eagerly answered, “Architecture!”
He went on to say the words which hit me like bricks.
“Nne, you are a woman. Architecture? why don’t you study pharmacy like your [female] cousin?”
I was bewildered but not for too long, you see, in the Nigeria of my childhood, certain professions were still “meant” for certain sexes. I gently and calmly explained to him that I would rather study medicine if I must do something in the “medical field.” Then he added, “But medicine is for men, why don’t you do something more feminine?” At this point, I promised him I would work really hard to prove to him that I could and would become a doctor, regardless of my sex. After completing medical school (I was one of about ten women in my graduating class). I decided I would like to go to the U.S. for my residency, and I wanted none other than Howard University in Washington, DC.
This decision was again met with, “But you are a single female.” “America is so huge, and we really don’t know anyone there.” “How are you going to manage on your own?” “I hear that everyone uses drugs out there.” “You are not married yet.” “What about children?”
Foreign medical graduates take the ECFMG/USMLE exams to get into residency in the U.S. These exams are tough, they are expensive, and those of us from Nigeria had to travel to Ghana to take them, because it was the only country with test centers for West Africa at that time. After scaling each exam with one try, I applied for residency. After my experience with the entire process, I became a believer in the power of speaking one’s destiny into existence. I applied (from my home in Nigeria) to a total of seventy-five different residency programs. Eight of them responded, six turned me down, and only two invited me for interviews. In the process of raising money for my trip, obtaining a visa from the U.S. embassy and finally coming to America I made it just in time for my interview at Miami Children’s Hospital — but I arrived at Washington DC, one day late for my interview at Howard University Hospital.
Now I need to explain to you that while I was in Nigeria, I somehow managed to keep a line of communication open with the secretary of the department of pediatrics at Howard University Hospital. I called her frequently, closely following the progress of my application. And, folks, that singular act ended up saving the day. She recognized my voice, the lady that had been calling her all the way from Nigeria! Thankfully, she was able to secure another spot for an interview for me. I must mention what my odds were: I was a day late for my interview, there were over 4,000 applicants, 14 positions, and I got matched! How’s that for fulfilling my destiny?
As a “newbie” in America, I had many memorable firsts. My first Greyhound bus ride from New York to the nation’s capital, the first bratwurst hot dog I ate on the streets of New York, the sounds and smells of the subway stations of D.C., the homeless people on the streets, young mothers pushing strollers in every corner with their babies in them, my first encounter with a flasher on a Brooklyn-bound New York subway train. But the cherry on top was undoubtedly the golden opportunity to train at Howard University and to have matched at my very first try.
Residency itself was not particularly difficult. The hospital had enough Nigerian residents and faculty for my comfort. However, as a recent immigrant, I had to adjust my ears to understand the American English, its many accents, and its unique vocabulary. I remember especially having a hard time with phrases like “glove compartment” not pigeonhole, “flashlight” not torchlight, and “diaper rash” not nappy rash.
Never mind the new spellings of words like color, not colour, tire not tyre, pediatrics, not paediatrics or estrogen, not oestrogen. I also had to relearn old medications with new names like “Tylenol,” instead of Paracetamol/Panadol, “Amoxicillin” not Ampiclox, and the fact that there are absolutely no antimalarials or typhoid medications being prescribed anywhere. I marveled at the fact that most people I met were impressed with my English language and vocabulary.
“Where did you learn how to speak English?” they’d ask, “You ain’t gat no kids at 27-years-old?” One of my favorites was: “How did you get to America, did you fly?” to which I would usually respond “No, I came on La Amistad and swam the rest of the way.”
I eventually completed residency, got married, moved to South Carolina and started a private practice. With a J-1 visa, I had to start up in a health professional shortage area (HPSA), in Lancaster County, South Carolina. I was adjusting well. I had one son at the time, and my practice was doing well — until one fateful day, a disgruntled mom reminded me that I was far away from home with the words, “Go back to your country and stop taking our jobs!”
These words came from an unemployed citizen who felt I had to give her child antibiotics for a cold or else. Funny enough, I sometimes ponder on her words, how she could have ever imagined I was taking her job; or how I could have been of any threat to her source of livelihood. Other than that, and a few other interesting comments like “Ma’am, I love your accent,” or “Doc, I don’t want to mess up your name, so I will just spell it out,” life has been good.
I often reflect on my 25-year journey since I first came into this country, nervous, afraid, but determined to get into residency.
Uchenna Umeh is a pediatrician and can be reached on Facebook and YouTube.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com