Uchenna Umeh is a Pediatrician imbued with a deep well of patience and compassion. She is emotionally-anchored, confident, humble and passionate about children, youths, and ending suicide in the world. Umeh, based in the United States, is also a teen expert, writer and public speaker. This Pediatrician recently quit clinical medicine after nearly 30 years, to focus on her work on youth suicide prevention. Umeh, trained in Nigeria and the United States, speaks to Adedayo Adejobi on her journey into Pediatrics, passion for youths, what energises her, what gives her great joy and how she balances work and life
How did your journey to becoming a Pediatrician begin?
As far back as I can remember, I had always wanted to become an architect. When I found myself in medical school, the decision was pretty easy. I love kids, so going into Pediatrics was a natural path for me. I finished medical school at Ahmadu Bello University in 1991. Then I did my housemanship at Eko Hospital in Lagos State. My NYSC was at the NNPC clinic on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi where my family resided at that time.
It was while working at Eko Hospital that I met two mentors who essentially put me on the path to schooling in the United States. Dr. Biodun Aluko and Dr. Okadigbo (can’t recall her first name now). They both trained at Howard University Hospital in Washington DC, and I was so impressed by their bedside manners, their knowledge of Pediatrics, and the way they carried themselves, that I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to go to Howard University, and that was that. After NYSC, I spent another two years working at First Consultants in Obalende, Lagos, while I studied for exams that would allow me to go to the US for residency. I took all three exams in Ghana and passed each one at a sitting.
I then applied to about 75 medical school residency programmes in the US. Only two of them invited me for an interview, Howard University Hospital and Miami Children’s Hospital. I went to the US in October of 1994 to wait for my interviews, and even though I was a day late at Howard University, I was blessed to get accepted, out of over 4000 candidates with only 16 spots available for the year!
How long have you been practicing?
I have been practicing Pediatrics since 1998 and Medicine since 1991.
What do you believe are the best ways to good parenting?
While I believe there are many ways to being a good parent, depending on customs, circumstances and knowledge base, my brand new Amazon best-selling book “Dr. Lulu’s How to Raise Well Rounded Children” available on Amazon and on my website www.teenalive.com/books.html, is a practical guide with 16 principles I believe must be incorporated in raising any child, they include principles like gratitude, kindness, resiliency, humility, etc
What do you enjoy about being a Pediatrician?
My favourite thing about being a pediatrician is hugging my patients and watching them grow up. I call myself a “grand doctor” because I have patients who have had kids and now bring them to see me! That may actually be the best part of being a pediatrician, because I know for sure that they trust me.
Tell us about your books?
I have only written one book that is published, it is a parenting book (mentioned above). Books 2 and 3 are in the works. These particular books are based on my current work with mental health conditions; depression and suicide in youth.
What is the first book that made you cry?
I honestly cannot remember. I am hopelessly romantic. So, there have been many.
What is your favourite childhood book?
As a teen, I read the Famous Five series a lot. I also enjoyed the Pacesetters series, but my favourites growing up were comic books; Archie and Friends, Mandy, Judy etc. I have always loved to read, that came about when my uncle asked me to read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, at the age of eight, and it was followed by The Iceman Cometh, by Eugene O’Neil. The latter was not only a play, it was a thick book, but by the time I was done, I was hooked. My uncle would not only make me read the books, he would also quiz me on spellings of words in them.
Does writing energise or exhaust you?
Writing definitely energises me. I love writing. My personal blog is www.wordsbyblackbutterfly.com
What does literary success mean to you?
Seeing my books in libraries all over the world and in bookstores all over the world, and translated into different languages.
Is public speaking something you’ve always wanted to do, or something that came along unexpectedly in your life?
A little bit of both. As a doctor, I have been speaking in public ever since I was in medical school. As a private practitioner, I spoke at many community events in Carolina. I have always been passionate about the inequality of access to healthcare, and been outspoken about the need for equal treatment of both sexes, and recently, my passion is now on child, teen and young adult (depression and suicide). In other words, I speak anywhere and everywhere. I just need a microphone. I not only organise and hold Dr. Lulu’s Parenting Your Teen Workshops which I take to cities all over the US, I also speak at schools; both grade school and college level. I speak at community events and National conferences. I seize any and every opportunity I can find to push my agenda. My aim is to understand suicide and its causes in order to help spread awareness and ultimately help end it worldwide. As you may or may not know, two weeks ago, there were five reported suicides among Nigerian youth. Please note that these are only the reported cases! Imagine how many more suicides attempts there were or even how many more suicide attempts there are all over the world. Per the Centers for Disease control (CDC), in the US, there are 39 suicide attempts for every completed one, and scores more have suicidal thoughts but don’t act on it. Per the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is one completed suicide every 40 seconds. These numbers are not even available in Nigeria, and as we can imagine, most suicides are not reported in many parts of the world.
I started speaking about suicide after an eight-year old patient of mine attempted to hang himself twice last May 2018. This was exactly 10 years after my first depressed patient successfully completed suicide in July of 2008. However, my very first contact with suicide was in the year 2000, when a Nigerian colleague of mine whom I worked with at Eko hospital shot herself in the head. So, you see, public speaking has been calling my name for a while now.
How many speaking engagements do you do a year?
I only started fully last October 2018, and so far, I have had at least one every month. Now that I am done with school, I plan on increasing my engagements.
What do you think are the keys to being a successful public speaker?
First, know your topic thoroughly so you can speak on it effectively and with ease. Then know your audience very well, and what they want, so you can deliver it. Then connect with your audience, either emotionally or otherwise. Allow yourself to be vulnerable in as much as you want your confidence to show. The audience is usually rooting for you, so leverage that and go for it. The most important things I have found that work for me though, are asking the audience engaging questions i.e. audience participation, and having fun while on stage. I try to smile as I walk on to the stage, and find faces and make eye contact. I also laugh (and get the audience to laugh) as much as possible. Even though I am talking about suicide, I try to find ways to add humour to my talk.
What is the best part of your job?
Whether I am in the office seeing a sick child, or on the phone talking to a patient’s parent, or even on stage speaking to a PTA board, I find that connecting with people on an individual basis is key. Meeting my patients and clients at their points of need, and helping to make a difference in their lives is another key also.
Besides my weekly Facebook Live, which takes place every Sunday afternoon at 2pm where I discuss hot topics affecting teens, like Teens and Telephones, School Shootings, Vaccinations, or Dating and Drug Use etc. For instance, last Sunday we discussed part 2 of Suicide in Nigerian Youth; what’s the 411? I am also planning on starting a podcast in the next few weeks. It’s called Suicide Pages with Dr. Lulu. With that avenue, I want to reach out to an even wider audience. I want to speak with family members and people who have been intimately affected by suicide, like parents, siblings, doctors, nurses, teachers, counselors and friends of victims. I want them to have a platform to share their stories and their experiences, their successes and their fears, any advice or thoughts, and their daily struggles with survival. Anything at all that will help in bringing suicide closer to our homes and our hearts. We must begin to talk about it, look it in the eye and challenge it. Say its name aloud and change our attitudes towards it. Dispel all the myths about depression and suicide, and change the narrative. I want it all. We must remember that a minimum of six people are affected by every single suicide death.
What is the worst part of your job?
Losing a patient. I have lost babies, toddlers, school-aged kids, teens and young adults to various ailments ranging from still-births to prematurity, child abuse, drowning, cancer, and even to suicide. That hurts, that hurts a lot. One never really gets over stuff like that. My patients become my children, an extension of me. Their families become my family. So losing any of them to anything, hurts.
What is the work/family/life balance like for you?
It is a lot better now, especially since my children are much older. I recently quit clinical medicine after nearly 30 years, to focus on my work on youth suicide prevention. I also graduated from the Executive MBA programme at the University of Texas in San Antonio just last week, so, my time is a lot freer and I can get more done. I essentially work from home now, doing telemedicine full time as I hustle with my speaking engagements and writing, etc. I love to exercise, so I am refocusing on my Kickboxing and Yoga and Zumba again.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your job?
Doctors in America make a lot of money. First of all, that is untrue. Anyone who knows someone working in IT for instance Google, Microsoft or Apple, knows those folks make a lot more money per hour than most doctors do, considering the length of hours we work. Most employed doctors are at the mercy of their bosses, long stressful hours, and unrealistic productivity requirements. Most entrepreneurial doctors that I know (I used to be one) spend a lot of money on overhead and malpractice insurance. Most American-trained doctors owe hundreds of thousands of dollars on student loans. Furthermore, if one gets sued, that’s another major expense and damage to one’s reputation. Generally speaking, the reimbursement is pennies on the dollar for all the work we do. Most of us go into medicine to make a difference and for the service to humanity, not for the money. Yes, we can live comfortably, but not for very very long after graduation. Doctors in America today are living on past glory. We are all branching out into other avenues like speaking or coaching or even multi-level-marketing to keep body and soul together.
Suicides are also on the rise amongst doctors in America, so, that grass most people see, is definitely not greener on my side. Public Speaking is easy. It is actually quite hard. I think that if you like what you are speaking about and are passionate about it, and then it is that much easier. But public speaking is not easy to pull off. You need charisma, poise and a little magic to be Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, JFK, MLK or Winston Churchill. Popular opinion is that the fear of public speaking is so bad, that many people would rather die than speak in public. While I don’t know how accurate that is, I do know that I still get a bit nervous every time I have to go on stage, despite all the engagements I have had, but once I get in my zone, I’m cool.
Do you ever feel tension between your personal values and those of the wider American society?
Not really, besides racism and sexism, I am quite okay with it. I know my values. I don’t try to force them on others. I believe we can all coexist in harmony. I live by “Live and let live”. The Nigerian society is not necessarily better than the American society. There are issues on both sides. One simply has to know how to navigate them, and how to adapt. My father taught me that adaptability is one of my key watchwords/guiding principles in life.
What are your career high points to date?
Having my first son was the highlight of my entire life to date. However, I believe I have had many other lesser highlights at various stages of my life. From graduating with honors from high school, to graduating from medical school, to opening and successfully running my own private practice in South Carolina, to divorcing an abusive husband, to raising my sons who are now attending prestigious universities in the US with scholarships, to becoming a Lt. Col in the US Air Force as Commander of my fleet, to being a medical director at Lackland Air Force Base (the largest Ambulatory Pediatric clinic in the US Air Force), to quitting clinical medicine on my own terms in order to pursue my dream, to testifying at the Texas State House on House Bill-10 for Mental Health Awareness, to speaking nationally (and soon internationally) on suicide (the major public health crisis of our time), to writing and self-publishing a bestseller, to recently graduating with an MBA, all by the age of 50 have all been nothing short of evidence of the intentionality of God. One just has to let go and let Him do His work on our lives, and all shall be well.