I Look at Medicine as an Instrument of Social Justice

From The New York Daily News


Thursday, May 3rd 2007, 8:54 PM

An ordinary mortal can’t help but wonder how Dr. Philip Ozuah does it. At 44, Ozuah is physician in chief of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. He also is chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Montefiore Medical Center, the hospital’s medical school.

But wait. There’s more.

He is a leading expert on the effects of environmental exposures in children researching the effects on kids of mercury and other toxins. He teaches medical students. And he sees 3,000 patients a year.

“For me it’s always been about the people,” says Ozuah, whose warmth and calm belie his Herculean achievements.

Born to an engineer father and school principal mother, he found his life’s path very early – at 15, to be exact, when he started medical school at the University of Ibadan in the region of Anambra, in southeastern Nigeria.

“I was clearly the youngest person in the class, but I felt like I belonged there,” he says. “I don’t think people realized how much younger I was. I found people my own age quite immature.”

From that tender age, he was motivated by concern for the world’s needy – a value he got from his parents.

“My parents were always principled, disciplined, hardworking and generous,” he says, explaining that his father, who worked for the Nigerian government, went above and beyond to help the disenfranchised.

In addition to using his influence, he used his own resources to bring electricity and roads to impoverished villages.

“According to what [my parents] taught me, I look at medicine as an instrument of social justice and a way to enhance the welfare of humanity,” he says.

After medical school, he came to the U.S. to obtain a master’s degree in medical education from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“I was drawn to the vibrancy and innovative nature of the U.S.,” he says.

He was working toward his Ph.D. in medical education when a fellow researcher told him about an opening in the pediatric residency program at Montefiore.

Having already completed a general medical residency in Nigeria, he completed his second medical residency – this one in pediatrics – at the Bronx hospital and in 1991 accepted a faculty position teaching medical residents there.

In 1992, he took over the medical residents’ training program. He has since trained thousands of doctors. Several times a week he teaches medical students and residents.

His method is to ask students to bring him their most difficult cases. Then he, other specialists and the students – from 25 to 75 people – analyze the case in terms of diagnosis and treatment.

One who followed in Ozuah’s footsteps is Dr. Marina Reznick, assistant professor of pediatrics at the college.

As a medical student, she observed his skill and his manner with patients, in awe. She recalls Ozuah correctly diagnosing one little girl with septic arthritis in her hip – a condition resulting from lead poisoning – based on the way the child sat. By arranging emergency surgery, Ozuah spared the child a lifetime of medical complications.

“I decided, when I saw [him make that diagnosis] that I wanted to be like him,” says Reznick.

His communication skills are not lost on young patients.

“Anything I ask him, he’ll answer my question, and you can understand what he’s saying,” says Mateo Myers, 13, of the South Bronx.

In 2002, Ozuah was appointed vice chairman of Montefiore’s Pediatrics Department and, in 2005, chairman.

With the imperative to help as many as possible, Ozuah focuses on research as well as supervising other doctors and seeing patients.

“I decided I could only help so many children one on one, but if I could advance the field and help to disseminate knowledge, I could affect the lives of thousands,” he says.

H e researches three major areas of environmental health: mercury exposure, tuberculosis screening and asthma. His asthma research focuses on several areas. One is under-standing environmental factors contributing to the condition in children. Another is how to deliver to families who have asthmatic kids information on minimizing these factors, and how to train physicians to be more effective in helping children with asthma.

“Sometimes, for kids, having pets in the home can make it worse, especially cats,” he says. “So a doctor who is going by the book will say, ‘Get rid of the cat.’

“But for some families, ‘Get rid of the cat’ means a house overrun with rodents. If you don’t understand that, you are coming from a different plane.”

Strategies for treating a child whose family is in that situation include increasing the child’s medicine, and/or suggesting replacing the cat with a hypoallergenic pet that reduces rodents, such as a snake.

Somewhere between all of it, he finds time for his family: his wife, Theresa Pinili Ozuah, and children Philip, 10; Phoebe, 8, and Piers, 6. As a family they enjoy travel and golf.

Is there anything he can’t do?

When it comes to golf, he volunteers, “I can’t even hit the ball.”

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2 responses to I Look at Medicine as an Instrument of Social Justice
  • 1.


    September 14, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Tia. I hate war, too. Not much is worse, except for genocide and slavery, both of which were ended by wars. Here's to the end of tyranny, genocide and slavery. Maybe we can end them by peaceful means, but who knows?

  • 2.

    Tia Betham

    September 7, 2007 at 9:23 am

    Fighting for peace is like making love for virginity.