Dr. Helen Okoye is a Reach-the-World Fellow of the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH) and serves on the ISTH Membership and Communications Committee.
She is a member of Thrombosis and Haemostasis group of the Nigerian Society of Haematology and Blood Transfusion. She also co-authored the first national guideline for the management of venous thromboembolism in Nigeria.
In this interview, Dr. Helen Okoye who has carried out research works and authored a number of manuscripts of international repute talks about her journey to becoming a doctor.
Where are you based?
I currently work at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in Ituku-Ozalla, Enugu, Nigeria, as a consultant haematologist where I focus on thrombosis and haemostasis.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I got my medical degree at Abia State University and completed my residency training at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital respectively. I grew up in Zaria in Kaduna state, in the Northern part of Nigeria. I come from a large family – we were eight children – which had the benefit that none of us ever felt lonely or bored – variety was the spice of our family life! The downside was that financial resources were limited as my parents tried to give each of us the very best they could afford. Things like structured extracurricular activities were a luxury, but I remember my mum making sure my siblings and I took part in church activities so that we could explore our talents by joining drama and singing groups.
When did you decide to become a doctor?
As a child I wanted to be so many things, from an actress and a dancer to a musician…. The one constant was my desire to care for the weak. My mum kept poultry, which we’d sell, and I was very drawn to those little birds. I helped take care of them and nursed them if they got ill – I enjoyed assisting the Veterinary doctor who’d come to review them! We also had a dog, Gilly, of whom I was very fond of and loved taking care of. One day when I was 10 my dad asked us children what we’d one day like to become. I gave it serious thought, then blurted out that I wanted to become an animal doctor. My family was amused but my father said, “That’s a good one but have you ever thought about being a human doctor so you can take care of daddy, mummy, and your siblings?” That conversation sparked my dream of becoming a doctor – the day marking the start of my lifelong obsession to help humans get better and stay healthy.
Was it plain sailing from there, to become a doctor?
My journey to being the doctor I am today h as not been a completely easy one. After secondary school I gained admission into Abia State University to study Medicine and Surgery, but, as I’ve mentioned before, my family’s limited finances meant I often couldn’t afford the textbooks I needed. I had to either make copies of textbooks or borrow from friends. As much as my parents made sure I had the basic needs as a medical student, other things were not within my reach. To earn money, I made and sold beaded jewellery and interned at a nearby hospital during the holidays. I also turned my love of shopping into an entrepreneurial venture by hunting down bargains at Ariaria market and reselling them to friends at a margin.
Any life lessons you learned along the way?
Sustaining myself through a financially difficult time wasn’t easy, but it helped me appreciate the things I did have and to see the value in them, like books and good friends. I hope that my experiences will serve as inspiration to anyone facing the same financial challenges I did in becoming a doctor. I know that the curriculum is overwhelming and leaves you little to no time for anything else, but try to maximze every little moment you have for your studies.
How did you get into the field of Hematology?
During my last year at medical school, students were encouraged to move into subspecialties of medicine. My dream of being a doctor caring for humans changed into a burning desire to be in an area of medicine where there was a shortage of manpower. It led me to specialise in Haematology.
What kind of support system do you have?
I’ve always had a support system that doesn’t just let me bloom, but helps me soar. When I was a child, my parents were part of every step of my academic journey. I remember they’d go through my classwork every day when I got home from school. They readily gave up their comfort just to give us children the best. Now I’m blessed with an amazing husband who believes so much in me and encourages me to attain academic excellence and self-development.
What inspires you?
I’ve always wanted to take my achievements a step further. During my residency days, I knew that to make a name for myself I’d have to go beyond the norm. Once I’d obtained an MBBS, I decided to specialise, and then go for fellowships, training, and update courses. Your career is a constant journey to get better in order to stay relevant. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. Put in the work. Be convinced by your dreams and believe in yourself.
What is your motto?
Once you have a dream, nothing but you can stop you. Believe in yourself and keep on trying. All that you need to become who you want to be, will come.