Chigozirim Ekeke is an ambitious 28-year-old Nigerian from Atlanta, Georgia. In this interview, Chigo outlines what his life is like as a cardiothoracic surgery resident physician and what is it like to have such a demanding career.
Hi Chigo! Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview!
No problem, I’m glad to help. Thank you for having me.
What was life like growing up in a Nigerian household?
Education is a top priority. My family's principles are based on the importance of faith, education, and family loyalty. The standards were set high; anything less than an A was unacceptable.
Shifting gears to your career, how long have you been a heart surgeon?
I finished my year of cardiothoracic surgery residency. I matched originally into general surgery,
then switched over to cardiothoracic surgery during my training.
Can you take me through the steps of becoming a heart surgeon?
Complete four years of undergraduate, followed by 4-5 years of medical school. Some people take an extra year to do research or pursue an additional degree. Others pursue a Ph.D. while they are in medical school. After completing medical school, you "match" into residency. (General surgery 5-7 years, CT fellowship 2-3 years OR Integrated CT Residency 6-7 years)
Where did you go to school for your undergraduate education?
I attended The Ohio State University. I studied Bio-Chemistry with research distinction.
How did you decide to become a surgeon in general, and why heart surgery out of all the specialties? Were there any other ones that caught your eye?
Human Anatomy was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and that sparked my academic interest in surgery. During my collegiate career, I had the opportunity to shadow several mentors in Cardiology, Adult Cardiac Surgery and Heart transplant surgery and I fell in love with it. I enjoyed the procedures, the atmosphere of the operating room, the teamwork, the variety of the cases. I've always loved it, so I stuck with it, without regrets.
Did you just not like general surgery as much?
General surgery training experience, although brief, was fun and educational. Coming out of medical school, I wanted to expose myself to as much as possible and wanted to see every aspect of general surgery and its many sub-specialties. I thoroughly enjoyed learning from each specialty but ultimately enjoyed CT more.
What is medical school like? Is it really cutthroat?
Medical school is definitely very busy. The first two years are mostly in the lecture hall doing the basic sciences and learning about pathophysiology and pharmacology, more so the hard dry sciences.
The 3rd or 4th year, you're mostly on the wards, you're in the hospital full-time, you're starting to train, you look at different specialties, outpatient clinic etc. Then, eventually, you decide what specialty you like and what you want to go into, which is usually towards the end of your 3rd year going on to your 4th year. Usually the Fall of your 4th year you're applying for residency.
The cutthroat environment really depends on where you go.
Do you get paid during schooling?
As a medical student you are paying for your education (unless you have grants and scholarships) and as a resident, you are getting paid to learn.
Are you the only surgeon in your family? or the only one in the medical field?
I am the first doctor in my family and the only surgeon so far. I have a little sister who is a
rising 3rd-year medical student at Morehouse, so she will be next in line.
What is a typical workday like for you?
Usually. the day starts around 5-5:30am. You get to the hospital and start "rounding" on your patients. The patient list can range anywhere from about 10-50, so you have to be very efficient.
The operating room starts at around 7-7:30am. You arrive with the anesthesia team and make sure everything is good to go. You have to make sure all your equipment is in the room, and upload any available imaging studies. You have to come in with a game plan. You have to be ready to go.
So, if you come in at 5 am when does your day usually end?
Sometimes it ends around 6-7pm, or later, depending on the surgery. You don't leave until the surgeries are done and all the patients are tucked in and reassessed. Things happen during the day while surgery is taking place. The day ends when the work is complete.
Are you usually the lead surgeon in a surgery, or the only one, do you have other surgeons as well?
The attending surgeon is the boss. He or she is the one that takes on the liability of the
case. They are the doctors on record and the resident is usually the assistant surgeon. As you mature through your training, the attending surgeon will graduate your responsibilities in the operating room.
What was your first surgery like?
My first surgery as an intern was an umbilical hernia. It was a straightforward, small case, but it
was great exposure for me. The attending physician walked me through the case.
I was definitely nervous at first because it was my first time as a doctor doing a case, but now I
do so many of them, so it's not a big deal to me.
Have you had any losses in surgery? If so, how do you deal with those losses?
I have not experienced any intraoperative deaths yet.
What does saving a life truly feel like? Do you celebrate in any way?
It is why I am here, and it's a part of the job. Many factors go into a patient doing well, or not doing well, and a surgeon's work is only a piece of that. You come and do the work.
You learn from your mistakes, and you learn from your successes. I'm humbled that I have the opportunity to do what I do and feel good about it. I want to replicate that and do it consistently.
Having such a demanding career, do you feel like balancing your personal life is tough?
That's probably the biggest challenge, work-life balance. Not just for surgeons, but most professionals in general. That's one of the biggest hurdles. You come back home tired, you want to eat, sleep, you have other personal issues. You have family and friends wanting to hang out. On my weekends off, I make time to catch up with people. When you're that busy, you have to find ways to be efficient.
What are some things you like to do off the job to relax and unwind?
When I'm off the job, I'm out of town. I'll fly out in a heartbeat. I need distance from work to
relieve my mind. I like to be out of sight and out of mind, that's my way of decompressing. I like to visit friends, go out and have a good time. Otherwise, I love sports, music, I'm a huge basketball fan and a hip pop and jazz enthusiast.
Were there any major challenges you faced on your journey to becoming a surgeon, or times where you wanted to quit?
There are always challenges, but there was never an instance in my life where it was like "it's not for me" or "I'm quitting". Residency is hard, training is difficult. As a student, the biggest adjustment is when you transition from high school to college. The competition is different. My college had 55,000 students, so my average biology class had about 300 students. I went from being in high school with 30 students in a class to a college freshman with 300.
The students in college come from different academic backgrounds and experiences, so that can be a little intimidating at first, but after a while, you have to tell yourself "Hey, I'm here for me and my own education", so it makes it easier to cope.
I had a big support system while going through college and medical school, so I had people I could confide in and discuss my issues with. I enjoyed the process. Having support and mentorship was key to my success in going through college and medical school.
What is it like being a black male surgeon "beating the statistics"? Are people shocked when they see you sometimes?
I think so. I mean Pittsburgh is not a predominantly black city. I don't really marinate on the fact that I'm the only black CT surgery resident or one of few black doctors in the hospital. I come to work and give my best effort. I give my patients and team 200%. Of course, there are microaggressions everywhere, but I've had a great support system here.
People appreciate the work and I appreciate the efforts other people bring to the table. I am very aware of my surroundings and very aware of who I am and what I do. You have to let your hard work and performances speak for itself and leave no doubt.
I have a random question! Have you watched the show Grey's Anatomy? If so, what do you think about the way surgeons are portrayed? Is it accurate etc.?
I've watched it once. I watched Season 2 and that was it. I was told to watch it because of Burke, the cardio surgeon on the show. I have friends who watch it and tell me all about it, and I laugh because it's not real.
There are some minor errors as far as the hospital culture and people that are involved. I don't think the medicine is necessary authentic, but it's just a drama. I give the show credit because it gets people interested and it allows my friends and patients to ask me questions about what they saw on the show and allows me to have dialogue, so it's good for that
What is your favorite and least favorite thing about being a cardiothoracic surgeon?
Surgery itself is beautiful. Having the privilege to perform surgery on another human being is
humbling and honorable because people are trusting you with their life. Anything that happens is on you and I like the thrill of that.
Sometimes the fatigue can wear on you a little bit. There is a physical demand because you're up walking all day, but you do learn how to balance the fatigue and get better at it.
What was your most interesting case/surgery?
The most interesting non-cardiothoracic case was a pancreas and kidney transplant that I helped with 2 years ago. It was 16-hour surgery, but it was a beautiful case and I enjoyed it.
My favorite cardiothoracic cases: too many to count
For long surgeries, do you switch out with other surgeons?
No, you don't switch out. Once you're there, you're there. You're so tuned in to whats going on that when it's over you don't even realize that you were there for that long. By the time you put your head up, it's a different staff than when you started. You lose track of time when you're having fun.
Many people automatically think about money and how well they are going to be off financially if they become a surgeon. Is it as lavish financial-wise as it seems?
Definitely, don't do it for the money. They get paid handsomely, but you have to pay a lot upfront and it is a lot of time. College, medical school, training is all long. I have friends who are in finance, law, who are making great money and they're a little younger than me, and already done with school.
If you're in it for the finances, there are are many ways to get "rich". However, surgery is a different type of calling. You have to go into it for the right reasons. If you're going for the money, you are going to be very unhappy because the work is grueling.
Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years with your career?
I will be an assistant or associate professor of thoracic surgery in an academic institution. I like to teach and I want to invest in the new future of surgeons and help the next generation of students.
What advice would you give to aspiring surgeons in general?
Everything starts in college and medical school. Small things like being organized, attention to detail, how you plan out your day etc. Those things really show that you can step up to the plate. Those skills transfer to surgery.
Academic performance is key because it is your introduction in the door. Right now
there's a lot of people applying for residency, particularly surgery, and there are not enough spots, so I think starting early, gathering mentors and performing well, academically is essential.
There are different ways to get to where I am. There's no one way. There's more than one way to get to where you want to go.
If anyone is interested in contacting you with any further questions, what is the best way for them to reach you?
I can be contacted through my Instagram @suave_md. I speak on "Instagram live" , mostly Q&A sessions where I allow listeners to ask me questions about my career aspirations and journey.
Alright Chigo, that concludes this interview. Thank you so much again, as it was a pleasure getting the chance to talk to a surgeon!
You are very welcome, take care.
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