On this edition of Alumni Chatter, I am pleased to have a conversation with Dr. Omomengbe “Omo” Oni. Omo is a 2019 residency graduate and is staying in the Peoria area to practice at the UnityPoint Clinic in Bartonville. Omo is this year’s recipient of the Jo Sack citizenship award.
KW: I am fascinated with your path to medicine. It is somewhat non-traditional when you consider the demographics of most students and residents. Medicine was not your first career. Tell me about your first career, and then why did you choose medicine?
OO: So this is not somewhat non-traditional but very non-traditional.
Medicine for me though had always been a childhood dream, something that I always wanted to do. One of my biggest regrets is that my dad passed away before he knew that I started thinking about going back to school again.
I schooled in Nigeria and I had my undergrad in biochemistry with the plan to eventually transition into medical school. But somewhere along the line, I kind of got disillusioned and I thought, forget it and roll with the punches and take what life serves me.
When I finished undergrad in biochemistry, if you know a little bit about Nigeria, the employment market is very, very tough and hard to find work. The market is saturated with tons of graduates, because at the time there was really no option for the arts. You are either a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. So there were tons of graduates out there; not going to college is unheard of especially for a middle class family. I thought, well, I have my degree in biochemistry, I might as well find a job. I started working at an oil and gas company. While chemistry does not really fit the pattern at an oil and gas company, you can be trained for the job. I started working as a processing engineer and rose slowly up the ranks. I thought well, this is it. I got married and had a couple of kids. There is no white picket fence in Nigeria but, if you could picture, that is sort of what I was stepping into.
But there was always this self-doubt in the back of my mind, did I just settle? Shouldn’t I have done what I wanted to? Eventually after about 7 years of working in with the oil and gas company, we moved to Canada as a family. We moved to Calgary, Alberta, which is predominantly oil and gas companies. My husband was working in oil and gas too, so this is just what we do.
When I transitioned to Calgary, I expected to get the same kind of job, the same kind of position, with the same company that I was with in Nigeria. However, it was different. I was expected to have an engineering degree, and I did not.
So this means I have to go back to the drawing board more or less. I thought, if I had to go back to the drawing board, I did not know if I really wanted to study engineering, because I hate business — as most people in medical school do.
Since I had to start again anyway, I thought I might as well do something I am comfortable doing, but at that time I didn’t really explore the thought of going back to medical school. I thought, I have three children and am too old, I will just do something health care related, and that should satisfy my itch.
I went back and got a diploma in Nuclear Medicine Technology. I did that for two years while working full time, because I am restless and cannot sit still. When I received the diploma, I thought, “hoorah,” I am going to get a job at the hospital. However there was a worldwide shortage of medical nuclear isotopes at that time, so there were no jobs.
I thought, what now? I met a girl one day at the supermarket, and she was wearing surgical scrubs. I approached and asked her if she was a doctor, she said, “Oh, no I am an MRI technologist.” I never actually heard about that because it was not big in Nigeria. I asked her about the responsibilities and what it was like. The girl said she does some diagnostic imaging and such. Therefore, I did some research about MRI technologist, and it sounded interesting.
I went back to school for a two year diploma in MRI and Spectroscopy, while working a full-time job. Upon receiving my diploma, I started working as an MRI technologist, and I loved my job. There was minimal patient interaction, and I would often wonder of the patient’s outcome after diagnosis. Just thinking about this and talking with my husband, he said to me “you are going to get bored doing this one day.” I just wanted to know more and be a part of the decision making process. This rekindled my desire to go back to medical school.
At the time, I was in my 30s, approaching 40, with the thought of starting all over again. An old childhood friend of mine and I always said we wanted to be gynecologists. At the time, we really did not know what it meant, but we knew we wanted to be physicians. Our career paths have been different. She rambled around, eventually went to medical school, and finished residency. At this time, she was in practice and I told her of my thought of going back to medical school. She asked me “what is stopping you?” and I said I was too old. What she said to me has always resonated with me: “Why don’t you go back to medical school, because you are going to be 40 anyway. So do you want to be fulfilled or have regret and wonder, what if?”
So I started studying for the MCAT. My friend went above and beyond and applied for a few scholarships on my behalf. I thought about all of the obstacles you hear about (e.g., being an international medical graduate, being non-traditional because of my age, etc.), but I thought I would never know if I do not go.
KW: So from an oil and gas engineer to a MRI technologist, as you reflect back on those previous occupations/careers, what influences do they have on your profession as a family physician?
OO: A lot actually, which I am surprised by especially starting with my oil and gas job, which I would not have expected. Because I was working in a multi-national company, I was working with a very diverse establishment. The parent company was in France, so I had to learn to speak French so I could make my way up the ladder. I learned that I could do anything I set my mind to, and it gave me the opportunity to work with a diverse group of people.
My career in the diagnostic imaging world gave me a little bit of an edge, even if for my own personal benefit. This gave me an insight to think more outside of the box and has served me well.
KW: I think our residency program and the community we serve have greatly benefited from the diversity you have brought to our program, although that was not the reason why you chose us or we chose you. You were an excellent residency candidate because of your intellect, skills and your ability to be a wonderful family physician, but the fact of the diversity you brought in terms of your age, ethnicity, race, and gender being a black woman, is something I believe we benefited from. Do you agree, and how?
OO: I think so. I looked at residency roster poster, and I was the only black female in the class. At the time I started, I was the only black face on the poster before some changes, which is nice (the changes). I think the fact that I am pretty widely travelled just in the course of my life’s journey. I hope I brought some maturity with my age and experiences of my previous careers and raising a family. I know there are residents in my class who are comfortable with talking personally to me and knowing the conversation will be in confidence. They also seem to want to know my viewpoint.
KW: You segued to my follow up question. What influences, if any, do you think you had on your fellow resident colleagues and the patients you have had the privilege to care for?
OO: I think I would say of my colleagues it is my calmness. In terms of my patients, I hope I have been able to influence them, because I believe in the shared decision-making. I know I have had some success in that sense.
KW: So why the decision to stay in the area?
OO: That is born out of several reasons. I am not sure of the best way to answer that. In terms of my family dynamic at this time, it was the best decision for us. I have high schoolers who are reluctant to move, with all of the moving that we have done. I thought it was fair for them to have some balance and stability. At the same time too, being on a J-1 visa, you have to serve an underserved community as part of the requirements. Going into this journey, I knew that at the end this was something I would have to do, and it is actually something close to my heart. Just looking at the way healthcare is in Nigeria … I never forget where I am from, my roots, or how privileged I am in a country where you need the healthcare, and in spite of the cost, you get it first.
KW: What are you looking forward to the most in terms of being a family physician practicing on her own?
OO: I almost feel like it is starting residency all over again because I walked in and had no patients and then suddenly I am handed this new panel of patients, thinking what do I do for them, and how do they get to know me? I have trepidation in my heart, but the three years of residency have shown me that I have the ability to do it and can go out there and make an impact. I think the thing I am looking forward to is again being presented with a completely new panel of patients, trying to get to know them, and being a part of their health care. Honestly, just get to know them and about their lives.
KW: I think you are a role model. Do you relish the fact that you are in that role?
OO: I am not sure. I know that I am a role model to my kids, and that I do relish, because I think what I have been able to show them is that you can do whatever you want, regardless. Your age does not matter — your color. There will always be odds stacked against you, there will always be a reason why you cannot or should not, but if you really set your mind to it and you are determined, the world is yours. So I know I am able to role model that for my kids, and I hope I am able to role model that for others around me. I am proud of myself for that.
KW: That is a great way to end. Thanks Omo, and I wish you the best.