Eseosa Ighodaro, MD, PhD, is a neurologist busy tackling health disparities now. But she kept her first experiments on ice at home.
“I used to hide experiments in the freezer so my mom couldn’t see them,” she says. “I’d mix orange juice, pepper, and salt to see if I could create a chemical reaction. Afterwards, my mom would go into the kitchen and say, ‘Where are my ingredients?’ She was calling me ‘Doctor’ even before I knew I wanted to be a physician-scientist.”
In the family dining room, Ighodaro’s father set up a whiteboard with erasers and markers to teach his daughters math and science. He’d come to the U.S. from Nigeria in his 20s with $20 in his pocket. Having worked part-time jobs while getting his computer science degree, he had no patience for excuses.
“On the weekend, when other kids were playing outside, he’d say, ‘Where’s your science book? Where’s your math book?’” Ighodaro says. “I went to college thinking I could take over the world!”
The achievements kept coming. Ighodaro became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine with a combined MD/PhD degree in 2019. A medical school neuroscience class made her fall in love with the brain. So after graduating, she headed to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for her residency in neurology and neuroscience research. Next comes a fellowship in vascular neurology at Emory University, where she plans to become a stroke specialist.
But her goals go way beyond her degrees.
Combating Health Disparities in Neurology
Ighodaro plans to take on the health disparities around stroke in the Black community. That includes studying how chronic racism may raise stroke risk – and helping to prevent Black people who’ve already had one stroke to not have another.
She’s already gained national prominence as an advocate and teacher. The COVID-19 death of another doctor – Susan Moore, MD, an internal medicine doctor in Indiana – was a turning point.
Ighodaro had seen Moore’s videos posted on Facebook while hospitalized and severely ill. Moore described how she had begged for a CT scan and to get the antiviral drug remdesivir, and how she was refused pain medication. “If I was white, I wouldn’t have to go through that,” Moore said in one video. “This is how Black people get killed, when you send them home, and they don’t know how to fight for themselves.” Moore was discharged from one hospital on Dec. 7, 2020, and was readmitted to another hospital just 12 hours later. She died on Dec. 20, 2020.
“Watching this video, I was irate,” Ighodaro says. “It was unacceptable! A Black female physician begging to be seen, to be treated as human, only to be dismissed. She died of COVID-19 complications because a system in which she worked to take care of patients treated her like a drug-seeker.”
Ighodaro put together a panel of eight Black women doctors and medical students. They released a video, “Tragedy: The Story of Dr. Susan Moore and Black Medical Disparities,” about what Moore’s death meant to them. Its success inspired Ighodaro to produce two more panel discussion videos: one on racial health disparities in fertility, labor, and delivery and another on racism in medical publishing.
The response to her videos prompted Ighodaro to create Ziengbe (“zee-en-bay”), a nonprofit health advocacy organization. The word means “perseverance” in the Edo language of Nigeria, her father’s people. Ziengbe’s mission is to eliminate neurological and other health disparities facing the Black community through advocacy, education, and empowerment.
“I want us to treat this issue like a medical emergency,” like how a stroke is treated, Ighodaro says. “If we don’t, Black people will continue to die.”
Nurturing the Next Generation
Ighodaro also has her eye on the doctors and scientists who’re coming after her.
One of her first projects with Ziengbe was to harness social media to support, educate, and mentor young people from communities of color and other underrepresented groups who are interested in pursuing neurology careers.
“I had such wonderful mentors who played a major role in my becoming a neurologist,” she says. But she sees “so many students” who don’t.
Ighodaro has virtual neurology study groups. She uses email, WhatsApp, and social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and has grown it into a community of nearly 500 students and mentors. In more than a dozen online study sessions over the past year, she’s hosted sessions on topics including stroke management, seizures, and traumatic brain injury as well as preparing first-year interns for their first time practicing medicine on a hospital ward. The videos are archived online via the Ziengbe website.
She’s helped students publish their work, strengthening them as neurology residency candidates. “Some of them have never written a paper like this for a medical journal before,” Ighodaro says. She also speaks to medical professional societies, such as the American Academy of Neurology, about using social media to recruit the next generation of doctors, empower underserved populations, and combat racial disparities in health and health care.
“One of my primary goals is to recruit more people of color to the field of neurology and neuroscience, especially Black women,” Ighodaro says. “I’m trying to be the mentor that I wanted when I was younger. During my education, it was rare for me to be taught by a Black female neurologist or neuroscientist, or even come across one.”
Those too young to know their possibilities are some of her favorites.
“I want to show little Black girls that we are here,” Ighodaro says. “The road is difficult and can be lonely at times, but we can do it. We just have to dream big.”