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A philanthropic spirit rewarded

IUSM-NW student makes leap of faith to pursue his true calling; anonymous donor steps up to make a dream a reality

Monday Oct 21, 2013

In the action film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” hero Indiana Jones is faced with a decision. Standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking an abyss, he makes a heart-pounding leap, and miraculously, a bridge appears, saving him in the nick of time from perishing in a deep chasm.

This is how Ikechukwu Okafo, a first-year student at Indiana University School of Medicine – Northwest (IUSM-NW) described his feelings about abandoning a high-paying career in software engineering and jumping directly into medical school. He wasn’t entirely sure what would happen after taking the leap to change his career in such drastic fashion, but he knew, unequivocally, that it was the right thing to do.

Just as it did for Indiana Jones, one could say a bridge appeared for Okafo, provided by a like-minded individual with a similar appreciation for altruism. Thanks to an anonymous donor, Okafo received a scholarship which will help offset the weight of medical school.

“After I explained Ike’s situation and how determined he was to pursue medical school, they were just thrilled to be able to help,” said IUSM-NW Associate Dean and Director Patrick Bankston, Ph.D. said of the donors. “Having a family, he has significant expenses to consider that many students don’t have.”

Bankston said that for students like Okafo, a gift can be life-changing.

“The cost of a medical education is huge no matter what school you attend,” Bankston said. “That could inhibit some students who are very qualified and would make excellent doctors from attending medical school.”

Okafo wants the donors to know how much of a difference their contribution has made.

“You made a dream possible. You lightened the burden of a family who is also desiring to make a difference and I will not forget that,” Okafo said.

Radical change, right reasons

Why would a software engineer with an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago, make such an extreme move, and at the age of 41?

The Nigerian-born student had witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of poor healthcare delivery in his home country, but it wasn’t until his mother’s early death that the gravity of the situation really set in. Okafo saw his mother’s death from a pulmonary embolism as senseless, and it served as the spark that set in motion his desire to become a physician.

“At that point, I felt I wasn’t fulfilling a purpose,” Okafo explained. “Something happens and you suddenly realize, ‘I was meant for something. There has to be a purpose.’ My actual calling is to not just stand aside from the healthcare fray, but to wade into it and make a difference.”

His decision to apply to medical school was met with shock, then support.

Despite the financial hardship that would come with raising two boys, David, 8, and Daniel, 10, on top of the cost of medical education, all on one income, Okafo’s wife Cordelia, a nurse, supported his decision wholeheartedly.

“She said, ‘I always knew this was what you were supposed to do,’” Okafo recalled.

Learning by doing; building relationships

Okafo applied to many medical schools in the Midwest. While weighing his offers, he paid a visit to Bankston, who Okafo said spoke passionately about the school’s unique approach to training physicians. It was the problem-based approach to preparation that Okafo said really sealed the deal.

“We get to meet patients very early in the process. We are invested in the community,” Okafo said. “There is this collegial atmosphere, not just in class but with the case approach to study. You are not just cramming your head with theoretical constructs but you are making sense of it. You are learning to think as a member of a team.

“Not only are we learning things everybody has to learn, like biochemistry, but we are learning how to relate with each other,” he said. “We are meeting patients very early. That is pretty unique. That kind of early focus on what a physician is going to be doing for the rest of his life.”

Now entrenched in the rigors of the Fall 2013 semester, Okafo was hit by another reality, that medical school is no easy road. Still, through it all, Okafo maintains his deeply philanthropic spirit and conviction that despite the rough stretch, he will one day make a difference as a physician for someone in need.

Okafo is already making good on that promise, having assisted volunteer physicians at community clinics that serve patients without health insurance. While completing the necessary prerequisites before being admitted to medical school, Okafo also took advantage of other educational and clinical research experiences that helped reinforce his new career choice.

With 26 fellow first-years that will stay together for the duration of their medical education, Okafo feels at home at IUSM-NW and says he appreciates the collegial atmosphere.

“I don’t know of many medical campuses where people’s birthdays are celebrated. I know that’s not the focus of med school but it’s that personal,” Okafo said. “There are real friendships and bonds that develop. It’s not a large class. You are not a number. You are not lost in the shuffle.”

Okafo plans to complete all four years of his education at the Northwest campus and hopes to do his residency in Chicago, where he currently resides.

The education of a future physician is an expensive undertaking, one that for many, would not even be fathomable without donor support. Okafo believes that because of his donors’ generosity, he now has an obligation to help someone else down the line.

“I hope someday I will be able to extend the same kind of gesture to help eliminate the barriers of funding for some future physician who can also make an impact in a world filled with people in need of love, care and healing,” he said.

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