‘I’ve met people who believed I shouldn’t succeed as a surgeon because of my gender, colour’
Dr. Chichi Menakaya is the CEO and founder of Annomo Health, an international medical concierge operating from the UK. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about getting into medicine through her father, challenges of being a black, female specialist, why doctors are leaving medicine for other pursuits and the urgent need to revolutionise the medical sector amongst other issues.
How was your growing up like for you and how did it influence your journey?
I am blessed with two amazing parents, Dr. Tim Menakaya and late Chief Magistrate, Ann Menakaya. My childhood recollections of my father include him entertaining a group of prominent people, speaking to a crowd of Nigerians in political rallies or performing some medical magic to his patients. I also have memories of playing ludo and monopoly with him or just playing London bridges with his legs. It can be intimidating to be his child; renowned, successful, respected, and loved by his people and my mum who was not just an epitome of beauty and class, but also commanded authority, was brilliant, kind and a great advocate for the girl child. My father’s achievements and my mother’s foundation meant I was given a bar so high from birth to scale.
My parents were very strict, loved us more than life itself and put in a lot of effort to ensure we enjoyed a normal childhood. I had chores as a child and was taught to respect my seniors and hard work was a given, not an option. On the other hand, growing up also had a lot of people who just saw me as the “minister’s daughter”, so they expect you to act a certain way. I am lucky that I do not allow people’s perceptions or expectations of me influence me.
My parents taught me to walk in my own shoes. They always told me that I had to be independent, command my own path in life, but most importantly, be greater than them and for that, I admire them so much. I am so proud and blessed to be born by them and grateful they taught me to find myself despite the chatter of importance that was my normality as a growing child.
Tell us briefly about your career journey?
My medical journey spans different continents; Africa, Europe, and America. I completed my medical school in Nigeria in UCH, Ibadan. During my journey in the UK, I have had the opportunity to work with mostly the best doctors in their specialties. I have been lucky to have been trained as a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon, but also had the opportunity to explore academic surgery for two years.
Academic surgery was an amazing experience; it opened my eyes to the work needed to achieve milestones and make impact in medicine. The beauty of medicine is to always ask new questions, strive for better and collaborate with others to make a positive change. I am lucky that till date, I continue to work in honorary capacity in Boston to bring about global change. As it stands, we are currently working on a project that will revolutionise trauma care in developing countries.
What has been the most challenging moment in your career?
The journey has been extremely challenging. I have only worked outside the country and, as a black woman, this means challenges meet you once you step out to do your job. I was faced with the challenge of getting accepted as a doctor in the first place, not just by colleagues but patients too. It is funny when I see the shock on patient’s faces when I introduce myself as their surgeon; I still get that look till today.
In my very first job in the UK, my educational supervisor told me that because I am “foreign”, I’d never get a job as a surgeon and I should consider a different career. You can imagine how that introduces fear and doubts to you as an individual. A person meant to mentor and nurture you tells you there is no point in dreaming. I believe these have been my biggest challenges; overcoming prejudices and keeping faith on my goals.
Fortunately, I grew up in a home where I was taught that dreams are free and can be achieved if only you put yourself through the mill and focus on the end game. This is my motto to date, I am allowed to fall sometimes, but I must get up quickly and try again. So, when I face challenges, I soldier on because as I say always, you have to keep dreaming if you want your tombstone to have a story to tell when this life is over. There is no point in living if you cannot make a difference to others.
What does being a doctor entail?
It is an interesting and exciting journey that is garnished with a lot of hard work and sleepless nights. First, years of medical school involving lecturers, pretend doctor duties and community health work all geared towards creating a student who would one day take over from the masters of the medical world. You learn responsibility, duty, dedication, humility and the value of human life. At the end, you take an oath of ‘First do no harm’, then you are rewarded the ‘Dr’ title.
In my opinion, I don’t believe you become a doctor once the title is awarded. I believe it takes more than just a title. You become a doctor once you can recognise and practice the burning urge to use your knowledge of the human body to take away pain, offer succour and really “do no harm”. That is what makes you a doctor; compassion, kindness, care, skilled and still human. If I have to trust you or my loved ones with our lives, you need to be worth it.
As a female doctor have you ever faced discrimination?
As a female, black, trauma and orthopaedic surgeon, most of the periods in my career have been challenging. I am stereotyped from the moment I walk in. A professor I met once told me that I would be employed because they needed people like ‘me’ to make up the numbers. Even though I worked ten times as hard, my hard work meant nothing. I was told that as a woman, I was not strong enough.
I find it hard to understand how physical strength is a benchmark for surgical skills and knowledge. A male colleague had once under the guise of a joke said women do not belong in the operating rooms, but the kitchen. The funny thing is that these words and actions are the foundation of my motivation to work harder, because you either accept their wrong perceptions of you or create your future by excelling. I decided that the latter was the better choice. At different critical points, I have met people who believed that I should not succeed because of my gender and colour. These challenges can break you, however, these words are my triggers for strength and motivate me to aspire for more. I constantly remind myself of the words of Michelle Obama: ‘When they go low, we go higher!’ Therefore, I drew inner strength, focused on my dreams, worked harder, but most importantly, reminded myself every day of my goals and kept at it.
Why are many doctors these days leaving medicine for other pursuits?
Doctors are normal humans like everyone else and can flourish in any environment. I believe like other humans, doctors have dreams that are bigger than just the walls of a hospital. Like me, they follow their dreams. I love being a doctor and even love my job as a surgeon even more. As a surgeon, I can fix broken things, reconstruct deformities and at the same time offer new technology that gives new lease of life. These skills I translate as an entrepreneur running a health concierge and design fashion pieces that complement a human form.
I always say that I am human first, doctor second, and multi-talented as many positions as I desire. I believe everyone must follow their dreams so that when it’s all done, they bow out with a huge smile on their face. I am actively involved in advocacy especially women’s rights. I am passionate about domestic violence and founded Okwui Mask scheme to combat this. It is a non-profit that rebuilds survivors through motivation, personal starter packs, and financial empowerment schemes. We believe in rebuilding survivors to achieve their full potentials. I love fashion a lot and started designing clothes when I was 12 years. Today, I still draw designs and sell with the proceeds going to support survivors of domestic violence.
How would you rate Nigeria’s health sector, is it living up to its full potentials?
Nigeria is full of great talents and skilled professionals with most offering their best despite the constraints. Unfortunately, the state of our national healthcare isn’t the best. Our health system needs a lot of help and not just infrastructural development or doctor-patient ratios alone but also different aspects that make up the sector. Then, there’s the attitude and belief of Nigerians with regards to the understanding of their health and diseases that can affect their health.
To solve the health sector problems in Nigeria, we need to address them at different levels. The top priority will be to raise awareness on health and health prevention. We need to educate the masses to understand the realities of medicine and when to seek help. Unless we get that right, we cannot address the rest of the health sector. We can rebuild infrastructure, train more doctors, bring in state-of-the-art equipment and services, but unless the citizens make health a priority, we cannot reach our full potential.
Also, our healthcare needs better regulations; we need policies that make health workers and facilities accountable to citizens. We need a transparent attitude where doctors must include patients in decision-making. A lot of people these days parade themselves as ‘cosmetic surgeons’ or ‘nutritionists’ or ‘fertility doctors’ and leave a trail of body bags and nothing is done. Nigerians continue to lose loved ones to these charlatans, because no concrete policies are stopping these unregulated practices. If we aim to build our systems, we need to look at better healthcare and use that as a template to rebuild our services. I am hopeful that we will achieve this soon.
You recently established a concierge health service, tell us about it?
Annomo Health is a bespoke comprehensive healthcare concierge, which provides holistic and multidisciplinary care tailored to the medical needs of patients seeking international health care. Our service was born out of the drive to ensure that private patients only get the best care available by the best doctors, in centers of excellence worldwide, and at the most affordable prices.
Our services are not limited to medical needs only; we have a dedicated luxury concierge service that tackles every single need to ensure clients concentrate only on their health. Imagine you have a unique genetic abnormality; we will not just connect you to a doctor with interests in genes but to the doctor who discovered that gene. We understand health is wealth and unless you get it right with your health, nothing else will matter.
We want to look after what matters to you the most, so you can live your life the way you want to. One thing I like most about this is that you can fly into your preferred location on a Friday, have a complete health check there, enjoy two nights in a five-star hotel on the house, have a chef make you a private meal or a private tour of a royal garden in London and you are back to Nigeria by Sunday or Monday.
What advice do you have for women?
My mother told me I had the strength of a lion and I can achieve anything I set my mind on. This is the message I want to give to every girl and woman in Nigeria. We are strong, determined, bold, unshakable and unbreakable. I am so proud to be an African woman especially a Nigerian Woman.
When I think of the Nigerian woman, I think of the great woman who gave birth to me and brought me up. A strong woman raised me. That is my Nigerian woman and that is the woman I want every girl child and woman to become. Command your life, body, time, and person. Do not let the world objectify you. Ignore all the noise on social media, discover you, be you and do you. You do not need to follow anybody or any crowd, create your own following and let others follow you.
How do you strike the perfect work-life balance?
I have one passion; people. Outside medicine, I love to impact people and this gives me a lot of satisfaction. So, when I am not putting bones together or speaking to patients or running a business, I am still speaking to people. My Mum told me that with my voice, I could move a nation. Therefore, I do exactly that. I am a huge movie addict; I love to travel to new places. I find them exciting because each place has a unique story and getting to know the place and the people is something I enjoy. I do also do a lot of writings. I am very big on family and spend a lot of time with family and friends.