Member of the Month:
Adanna Amechi-Obigwe, MD
Vernon FP considers the legacy of family medicine
By Perdita Henry
Your beginnings are not your endings. Beginnings are often scary and daunting, endings are sometimes sad, but the middle is often where the most growth happens. The middle is where you get to see what you are made of. The middle is where you find experience, growth, and wisdom.
Her journey in medicine began when her father told her, “Ada, you have to be a doctor.” Adanna, being a good Nigerian daughter, set out to do exactly that — even though she really wanted to be a dentist. As you can imagine, it wasn’t an easy start to a career in medicine. “I used to be scared and timid,” she said. I didn’t talk a whole lot and I would pass out at the sight of blood. But you can grow to love something.” Talk about a beginning.
Adanna Amechi-Obigwe, MD, is from Imo State Nigeria. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1997, landing in Dallas with plans to prepare for residency. From there she headed to New York to complete her residency training. She spent six years in Minnesota practicing and then returned to Texas.
The young woman who used to pass out at the sight of blood now owns the Hillcrest Clinic in Vernon, Texas, and is a fervent advocate for rural communities. I got to speak with her about her work in Vernon, why it’s important to her to build relationships with the immigrant children that visit her practice, how being fully present is important to the way she practices medicine, and why she is already considering the legacy of family medicine in her community.
What led you to family medicine? Were you inspired by anyone?
I love family medicine because my patients range from infants to the elderly and I get to treat a wide variety of conditions. I also recognize the great opportunity we have to make changes in the lives of families and the communities we serve.
I was inspired by a doctor I worked with in New York, Richard Bonanno, MD. I met him during my residency. He was so loving and he worked there for over 30 years. He saw people be born, grow up, and grow old. They would always come back to him.
You are chair of the Commission on Public Health, Clinical Affairs, and Research. Why is it important for you to participate as a leader in TAFP?
I think it’s important from many angles. What we see today in TAFP was built by those who came before us. We have a duty not only to continue the legacy they built, but to pass the baton to the next generation. We all have a voice, and as a woman and a minority living in a rural area, I have a unique perspective. When I came to this community five years ago, they didn’t have a whole lot of physicians. Now we have more physicians and the health of the community has improved. We have more access to health care. It takes one person being excited and living where they should be to get others to become excited about the same thing. I often remind myself that this is a unique opportunity, and I have a voice that will help change health care for the next generation. I can help create that future by listening to my people and that’s exciting to me.
What led you to practice in a rural community?
I love the rural area. Everybody knows who you are and it’s easy to influence change. People see me in Walmart and they want to stop and talk. In the big city no one knows who you are. Here you have an identity. You are part of a community and they look for you.
When I was sick and in the hospital last year, everybody took care of me. They knew who I was and I knew who they were, too. It’s more personal. People are warm and caring. That’s why I feel as at home and safe here as I would in my home town in Nigeria. It also helps that there is no traffic! It’s peaceful.
You recently bought a practice. Why were you inspired you to strike out on your own?
The Hillcrest Clinic actually began as a hospital in Vernon many years ago and eventually became the first clinic to be in the area. It was started by five physicians, one of which was Dr. Robert Borchardt — who I bought the clinic from. He is the only physician of the original five still in Vernon. He practiced here for over 30 years. He did his part and I must continue the legacy of family medicine in the area.
How would you define the mission of your practice?
The mission of my practice is to provide preventive, patient-oriented, and cost-effective health care. I live each day listening to my patients. The great Mayo brothers — and founders of the Mayo clinic — state that if we listen to our patients, more than 80 percent of the time we will be able to make the diagnosis without investigation. It is a key principle I use every day. People say that I’m slow, but I’m slow because I want to hear what my patients are saying.
A lady came in the other day and told me that she woke up with pain. She said, “I think I have a blood clot in my groin.” I asked her to repeat what she said. She said the same thing. Now, I know a blood clot in the groin of someone who moves around is unusual but she said it, I listened to her, and I checked her out, and you know what? She was right. My experience has been that listening to my patients helps me make the diagnosis. Sometimes they’re not looking for me to cure them; they just want me to listen and be present.
What are your ultimate career aspirations?
I see myself treating the whole being and moving fully into preventive health care. I encourage my patients to understand that most of the chronic medical problems we face can actually be treated and avoided through lifestyle choices. Because I’m not from this culture, I’ve noticed people only seem to come when they think something is broken. I’m trying to get people to realize that we really can take care of ourselves by exercising, drinking more water, watching our diet, getting periodic medical check-ups, and getting our immunizations before the illness sets in. Health is not just about not feeling well in your body but also recognizing that you’re not functioning to the best of your capacity or to the fullness of your potential. It’s not all just about physical function but mental function as well.
The Department of Homeland Security and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has designated you as a civil surgeon. Can you explain what that means and why it was important for you to receive that designation?
As a civil surgeon for U.S. immigration, I get to interview people who are seeking to immigrate to America. It’s all about public health. You’re making sure the person has no infections or conditions that will put the American public at risk.
I went through the same experience when I immigrated. I’ve been a civil surgeon for the last five years. When people come in for immigration purposes, they’re usually very nervous. Since I have been through the same process, I am able to explain to them what’s required and I think it helps to put them at ease. I would definitely suggest that family physicians participate in these types of opportunities.
You are passionate about bringing attention to the issues rural patients face. Where does that passion come from?
Back where I come from, my family is very passionate about our community. My father went to school in England and then came back home to start the first indigenous bank in the southwest part of Nigeria and eventually they moved into the rural areas as well. Bringing businesses into rural areas means more opportunities for development and education. I am passionate about these people because they have a voice and I can help amplify it. Your community looks up to you to help them get to the next level.
I think being an advocate for the people who trust you is a great thing. In these areas we have a lot of workers and farmers that need help. Some people think the differences between the city and the rural areas aren’t that big. I remind them that something that can happen in Dallas won’t necessarily work here. Vernon has a 40 percent poverty rate. It’s easy for some to say since we are all in Texas, there shouldn’t be much of a difference, but there is. In the five years I have treated people in this community, I have met people who have recently immigrated and they may eat only twice a day, they have poor dental health, they are pre-diabetic, and I have to tell insurance this is what you should expect in the next couple of years because this is what they are facing.
Every little kid that comes here, after I listen to their heart, I let them do the same to themselves. It’s my own way of showing them that they can be just like Dr. Ada. Their moms often tell me “she’s practicing to be Dr. Ada at home.” I tell the immigrant kids, “you are acting just like an American kid,” and that just tickles their parents. From those interactions, they get the impression that more is expected of them. They see me and that tells them they can be somebody and that they can be a doctor, too. I always tell them, “I want you to go to school, come back, and be my partner.” I hope they realize there is a space for them, it won’t be a long time before I get old. They can take over this clinic.
TAFP’s Member of the Month program highlights Texas family physicians in TAFP News Now and on the TAFP website. We feature a biography and a Q&A with a different TAFP member each month and his or her unique approach to family medicine. If you know an outstanding family physician colleague who you think should be featured as a Member of the Month or if you’d like to tell your own story, nominate yourself or your colleague by contacting TAFP by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (512) 329-8666. View past Members of the Month here.