Health & Family

Nigerian doctors in the U.S. never forget home

Fourteen years ago, Dr. Yele Aluko, a young cardiologist, was one of 20 Nigerian doctors living in the United States who started an organization to improve the health of people in their home nation in west Africa.

This year, as Aluko finishes a two-year term as president of the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas, the group will hold its 14th annual conference in Charlotte for the first time. Aluko has lived here since 1989.

About 250 doctors and other health-care providers are expected at the conference Thursday through Saturday at the Omni Hotel. Scientific sessions are aimed at health professionals, but Thursday morning's program, featuring Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN, is open to the public for $50 per person.

Gupta, a neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for the health and medical unit at CNN, will talk about “Medicine and the Media” at 10 a.m.

The earlier talk at 9 a.m., by Dr. Nelson Oyesiku of Emory University, sounds interesting, too. Oyesiku, a friend of Aluko's from their days at the University of Ibadan Medical School in Nigeria, will talk about “The Lost Generation: Perils and Pain of the Brain Drain.”

The title refers to the phenomenon of physicians leaving Third World countries for Western nations and whether that represents “a brain drain, or a brain gain” for those impoverished countries.

Both Aluko and Oyesiku believe doctors can influence health-care policy and delivery in the Third World without living there.

For example, the Nigerian physicians group is backing a program, through the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, that will give Nigerian students access to U.S. medical classes through the Internet. “You don't have to export a faculty physically to Africa,” Aluko said.

Some face-to-face time is good, though. Aluko travels to Nigeria once or twice every year. He and other Nigerian doctors from Charlotte go on medical missions to rural Nigeria. They lobby the Nigerian government to upgrade the nation's hospitals and medical services. They also speak to Nigerian medical students and provide free medical care.

Three years ago, Nigerian doctors in the Charlotte area – one of the nation's fastest-growing Nigerian physician communities with about 60 doctors – formed the Carolinas chapter of ANPA. In addition to helping Nigeria, they have provided $10,000 in scholarships and become mentors to about 10 underprivileged high school students in Charlotte. They hope to influence the students to become successful in whatever careers they choose.

“We, as Nigerian physicians who practice in North America, have responsibility for patient communities in the United States,” Aluko said. “But we also have responsibility to medically underserved areas in our home country of Nigeria. We have dual missions to take care of our obligations here and there.”