A strong belief in community service
to the U.S. Two of my brothers were already here, living with family members. My father lived with one of my brothers, and my mother, my younger brother and I lived with her sister until my parents could secure enough finances to move to an apartment in Queens. My parents are now retired and still reside in Queens. How did you become a doctor?
I knew I wanted to be a surgeon after seeing a PBS documentary on a heart transplant at age 10. When we returned to the United States, I was unsure how to bring that plan to fruition. I got a job at a White Castle fast-food restaurant in Queens, while trying to figure out how to continue my education. One day, I was home crying to my mother and frustrated that I did not have any idea how to proceed. My uncle, who was visiting, said there was a school within walking distance from my house — York College — and he suggested I should walk over and see if they would accept me. I did just that. It was the last date for acceptance to the winter session. I was given a placement test and was accepted in January 1994. I went to medical school at Temple University in Philadelphia and came back to New York as a surgical resident at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. I got a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship at Albert Einsteinmontefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. I then joined the Mt. Sinai Hospital as a clinical instructor, learning complex mitral valve repair.
I was looking to go to an area that was not oversaturated with surgeons trained in mitral valve surgery. I got a job in Utica with Mohawk Valley Surgery Group. However, I wanted to be back in academic medicine and joined the Albany Medical College faculty. In February it will be six years. I do a lot of projects with students and residents as director of a cardiac surgery simulation lab. This is made possible by people who donate their bodies to science, which is a noble thing to do.
How did growing up on two continents shape your faith and values?
Living for an extended period in two cultures, you realize what it’s like to have a lot — and not enough. You experience systems where people have options and no options. This shaped who I am. I believe in the importance of community service.
My family is Catholic on my mother’s side, a legacy of British colonialism, but my father’s parents were not. We are Ibo, one of the three main tribal groups in Nigeria. Christianity was not a rarity in the southern part of the country. I went to church every day, not just Sundays, and the message I got from that and reading the Bible was about how to treat people. I don’t think going to church every day is as important as what you do. The way you live, having empathy, loving thy neighbor and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is a lot more important in my view.
Do you go back to Nigeria?
Until 2012, there was no heart surgery in the country of 180 million people. There is medical migration. If you have money, you go to London or India. If you have no money, you suffer until you die. I work with the VOOM Foundation, which was started by a Nigerian surgeon and works with partner organizations. A retired nurse had sponsored him to come to the United States and paid for his education. He decided to go back to provide care for people who didn’t have means to leave the country. After I got established, Ialsowantedtogobackto Nigeria on medical missions and to establish a program. During exploration of that possibility I got connected with him and joined his organization.
I’m grateful for my new role as board president with the American Heart Association. I’m glad to help in bringing awareness of heart health and educating people on the importance of seeking care when needed, and helping raise funds to support research for medical growth. I am thankful for the support of Albany Medical Center. Life is why we do it.
Dr. Adanna Akujuo, a cardiothoracic surgeon, an associate professor at Albany Medical College and president of the Capital Region American Heart Association board. Born in New York City, she grew up in Nigeria, completed her education in this country and returns to Nigeria on medical missions.