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Nigerian doctor leads Sacred Heart transplant team

Providence transplant surgeon Dr. Okechukwu Ojogho is photographed in his offce in Spokane on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Providence transplant surgeon Dr. Okechukwu Ojogho is photographed in his offce in Spokane on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

As a boy in Nigeria, Okechukwu Ojogho knew early on he wanted a career in medicine. He traveled with his mother around the country while she served patients in rural Nigeria as a nurse-midwife. Medical care was scarce, and she often worked as the de-facto surgeon, physician and more.

“She did everything,” he said.

Inspired, he left Nigeria for California in 1977 to begin his undergraduate education. Eventually, he would go on to earn a medical degree, become a U.S. citizen and work as one of Sacred Heart Medical Center’s star organ-transplant surgeons.

But his first brush with the United States was a rude awakening. Arriving on a Pan-Am flight at JFK airport in New York City, he had to transfer to LaGuardia by bus for his flight to sunny California. Stepping outside, he was paralyzed by the cold.

“I’m seeing all this white stuff on the ground, and I don’t know what it is,” he said. Now, “despite the winter,” he said he loves the natural beauty around Spokane.

Ojogho studied immunology and microbiology in college. He grew up thinking of America as a perfect country, and said it was disconcerting to learn racism and segregation existed in his new home as much as they did in South Africa.

He was inspired to learn how civil rights leaders pushed for justice.

“It was also very encouraging to see that,” he said.

Ojogho went to medical school thinking he’d be an obstetrician, but quickly realized he was interested in transplant surgery, which related more to his studies.

He moved to Spokane seven years ago and is the medical director of transplant services for Providence Health Care.

“You have this dynamic where you have one person who is pretty much dying from organ disease and then you have someone who wants to give the gift of life,” he said. “For me, it’s a real blessing to be able to participate in that process.”

He’s thought about moving back to Nigeria, but said the country’s ongoing struggles with terrorism and governance make the prospect too difficult. Instead, he works with a group of physicians there to try to spread awareness about early signs of organ disease and improve access to medical care in the rural areas he lived in as a child.


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