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'Complementary' medicine

Suzanne Garber and Ngozika Okoye

A yin-yang dynamic makes the Student National Medical Association copresidents more effective as they combat health disparities

One was born in Rochester, Minnesota, the other in Nsukka, Nigeria. One is 39; the other is 24. One is passionate, maybe even a bit of a hothead; the other is analytical and judicious. Both are deeply committed to medicine and to combating health disparities—locally and globally. Together, as copresidents of the University of Minnesota’s chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), Suzanne Garber and Ngozika Okoye make a formidable team.

The SNMA’s mission is “to achieve better medical standards for people of color and underserved communities.” Among its goals are increasing the number of culturally competent physicians through volunteer work in underserved areas and helping to educate and encourage pre-medical and medical students of color. About 60 of the 964 medical students at the University of Minnesota are active SNMA members, says Mary Tate, SNMA adviser and director of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity. The group meets monthly and sponsors a wide array of lectures and events.

Choosing to dedicate their scarce free time to the SNMA wasn’t a hard call for Okoye or Garber. Okoye, whose family moved from Nigeria to Mississippi when she was 2, knows firsthand of the need the SNMA attempts to fill. “When I grew up, we were poor immigrants. We didn’t have health care; we used free clinics. My brother had asthma, and when he had his attacks, where did we go? The ER. That’s where we got most of our care,” she recalls. “We need to educate people, including providers, would-be providers, and the public, about health-care disparities here and around the world,” she says.

Garber’s upbringing informs her commitment to the SNMA, too. “One of the important [issues] to me has always been health-care disparities. My mom, who is Mexican, worked as a migrant health nurse for 20 years, and it’s just horrendous, the health care these people get.

“The SNMA became the group that best fit my needs,” Garber continues. “Plus, the people in it are fantastic. I spend 15 hours a day on this campus, and it’s nice to know that almost everywhere I turn there’s going to be somebody from the SNMA whom I’ve gotten to know. I have a family here.”

Mary Tate, director of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, advises the University's award-winning chapter of the Student National Medical Association.

Complementary strengths

There’s a definite yin-yang dynamic in Garber’s and Okoye’s collaboration. “We feed off of each other very well,” Okoye says. “I’m like the calm for her fire sign. I’m the water sign—I throw water on her and cool her down,” she laughs.

Garber agrees. “I try to be [diplomatic], but when I get mad about something, she’s the first one I go to. She makes it so easy for me to ask for help.”

Garber’s path to medicine was longer and a bit more circuitous than the average medical student’s. An MIT graduate, she began her career as an aerospace engineer. After her second layoff, Garber was an IT consultant for 12 years, working part of that time in England, Germany, and Luxembourg. She returned to Minnesota, primarily to be with family, and started medical school at the University last fall.

Okoye took a more direct route, completing her undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Minnesota in 2006 and starting medical school in 2007.

“Ngozika comes in from the new side, and I’m coming from the nontraditional side,” Garber says, so both younger and older students can relate to SNMA’s leadership.

Tate agrees that the pair’s symbiotic relationship brings tremendous value to SNMA. And that, in turn, benefits the Medical School and the University as a whole. “The SNMA has really helped put the U of M Medical School on the map,” Tate says. “It’s won regional and national awards. People I’ve run into—parents, faculty, people outside of the school—know about the group’s efforts. The students who join SNMA, serving is at their core. They just have a heart to serve.”

Inspiring future providers

The SNMA emphasizes pipeline programs designed to spark an interest in health professions among young people of color. “We’re letting the youth know, ‘There’s a need for you,’” Okoye says. “We’re hoping that by sending a delegation of people who may look like those students, they may say, ‘Hey, if she was able to do it, there’s no reason I can’t do it.’”

To that end, they’ve been working with students at Higher Ground Academy, a K-12 St. Paul charter school composed mostly of immigrant Somali students. The SNMA’s intent is not simply to groom future physicians, but to let students know about opportunities in health care generally. “Not just doctors, but also nurses, pharmacists, dentists,” Okoye says.

“Some students have this great aptitude, but they don’t have support at home,” she continues. “Maybe their parents aren’t educated, or maybe they’re busy with other things. And unfortunately, some students, from a very young age, are in the company of people who tell them that this is out of reach. And they start thinking, ‘College is not for me—it’s too hard, we can’t afford it,’ not knowing that there are all these possibilities out there.”

College and medical school are more accessible than many young people realize, Garber adds. “A lot of students aren’t aware of how many [financial aid] resources are available. That’s part of our mission—explaining to them how you can do it.”

Outreach with impact

Each year, Midwestern members of SNMA and of the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students (MAPS) gather for a regional conference. The weekend-long event includes workshops, lectures, panels, and service and networking opportunities.

Another highlight of the year is SNMA’s annual health fair at the Mall of America (MOA). The largest health fair in Minnesota, it served 300 people last year. Sponsored by the SNMA with support from the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, the Medical School’s Department of Ophthalmology, and the MOA, the all-day event offers free screening and information on a wide range of health topics.

“It’s direct outreach to the community,” Garber says. “We get to talk to people who have so many different questions. One guy came in with a glucose level that was way too high. We have people wanting information about pregnancy, heart attack, substance abuse.”

Okoye is buoyed by how the University’s health professional students—not just SNMA members—donate their time and support the cause. “The energy is just incredible,” she says. That collaborative spirit shows in other alliances, too. The SNMA recently cohosted a lecture with the Women in Medicine group and is talking with students in the School of Dentistry about collaborating on a national bone marrow registration drive.

Garber and Okoye say their SNMA experiences will have a lasting impact on their lives and will influence their career choices. Garber is currently leaning toward surgery and community health, while Okoye is intrigued by pediatrics and a global focus. Both women are certain that wherever they end up, the service ethic that the SNMA promotes will remain paramount.

“I have to give,” Okoye says. “If I don’t give, I just won’t be happy.”

By Susan Maas

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