MPH Graduate profiled in issue of the Post

The dreamer and doer

Student hopes to pair public health and orthopedics to help the developing world

By Bridget Higginbotham

A childhood doctor inspired Onyekachukwu “Onyeka” Osakwe, M.B., 30, to become an orthopedist, but his own experiences inspired him to go into public health. Now he hopes to combine the two.

As a 7-year old in southeastern Nigeria, Osakwe fell and broke his arm. Two years earlier, he had spilled a cup of scalding tea on his thigh. The same doctor treated his open fracture and second-degree burns. Dr. Eze was the only one who could change the child’s dressings painlessly.

“There was just something about him,” Osakwe said. “Something extra.”

So he decided, “I want to be Dr. Eze.”

Osakwe grew up and graduated with a degree in medicine from Nigeria’s University of Benin in 2006. The Nigerian government requires graduates to spend one year in the National Youth Service Corps in an effort to create national unity among the country’s diverse ethnic groups. Osakwe, a southerner, was sent to Gombe in the north.

The experience opened his eyes to poverty and provided him with hands-on opportunities, from performing surgery to delivering babies — there were even several babies named after him.

Monthly, Osakwe led groups to remote communities to pass out mosquito nets, provide free health care, and educate villagers about diseases and school children about hygiene. He realized that preventive services go a long way in improving people’s quality of life.

Motivated to study public health, he applied to UF’s Master of Public Health Program. He had heard about the university’s reputation from across the Atlantic but coming to Gainesville, Osakwe knew no one. The Public Health Student Association was the first organization to welcome him, and he’s been an active member since then. In addition, he volunteers with Alachua County Choices Health Services and is a teaching assistant for the course Principles of Epidemiology in Public Health — all the while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average.

Last year, the College of Public Health and Health Professions selected Osakwe for the Association of Schools of Public Health Leadership Institute. He was the first international student to participate in the annual workshop and networking session in Philadelphia.

Currently, he is interning and working on his research project with Children’s Medical Services studying methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, trends in children.

“Onyeka is excellent on every level — in his own class,” said Heidi Saliba, a coordinator of research programs for Children’s Medical Services. “He redefines excellence, and we are the fortunate ones.”

After he graduates in December, his sights are set on an orthopedic residency followed by a pediatric-orthopedic fellowship.

“People always ask me, ‘Orthopedics? Why are you getting your master’s in public health? How can you combine the two?’”

Osakwe’s ultimate goal is to contract with the World Health Organization to lead his own team of doctors and scientists into Nigeria and other developing nations to provide specialized services and do research on surgical site infections and malnutrition.

Osakwe’s success to date, as well as his mother’s encouragement, proves to him that he can accomplish anything if he works hard enough.

“I have my goals set, and though the odds may not always be in my favor, I believe strongly that with focus and consistent hard work, I will achieve these goals.”