BLOG: Leading with compassion, part 3: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree
OWL recently conducted a Q&A with Constance O. Okeke, MD, MSCE, a board-certified ophthalmologist specializing in glaucoma and cataract surgery at Virginia Eye Consultants.
Dr. Okeke, how has being a member of OWL impacted your career?
I’ve been a member of OWL for less than 6 months, but it’s already had a huge impact on my career by providing access to some of the most influential women in ophthalmology industry and business. I have had great advice, exposure for my interests and connections with key players that have resulted in industry collaborations and KOL opportunities.
You work passionately to prevent blindness through medical missions, glaucoma awareness campaigns and public speaking. Can you tell us how you started down that path?
My passion for medical mission work first blossomed from observing the philanthropic efforts that poured out in tidal waves from my father. My father was a late bloomer in medicine. He decided to shift careers as a biochemistry professor in his mid-30s to go to medical school. He fell in love with emergency medicine. Never forgetting his Nigerian roots, for every trip back home, he would always bring an ample stock of medicine and supplies that he used treat people himself or donated to the local hospital.
My father was a well-known philanthropist on both personal and public levels. He performed amazing deeds relating to health, education and nutrition in the U.S. and abroad, while touching the lives of thousands of people. The saying, “The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” applies to me, as well as to my siblings, who all became physicians and participated in some level of medical mission work. Though my father passed away in 2016, his spirit for giving lives on in his children and the many he inspired. I now have my own desire to further my passion for touching lives and educating on an international level through medical mission work treating eye disease.
Tell us a little about your medical mission journey thus far.
By the time I headed to Miami for my glaucoma fellowship at Bascom Palmer, I already knew that I wanted to participate in a medical mission. It was just a matter of finding out where and with whom. I quickly connected with Dr. Donald Budenz, who I knew had a tremendous background in mission work in Ghana. He gave me the initial connections that led me to contact Dr. Eugene Nwosu, president of the Goodness and Mercy Foundation. I proceeded to learn the process of planning for a medical mission, determining the materials needed, soliciting donations and preparing for the international trip. I went on two trips with the group. The first mission took place the year after I finished my fellowship. We traveled to Nigeria, which was a dream come true. The icing on the cake was the opportunity to perform cataract surgery on my own aunt!
The following year, I went to Ghana and experienced firsthand the frustrations of lack of electricity, which prevented me from performing eye surgery. I quickly discovered that I could still offer so much help through medical treatment and education. It was always disheartening, though, to leave each trip knowing that the huge crowds, larger with each day, would soon find that they just missed an opportunity that may not happen again.
Most recently, I had the opportunity to come into contact with Dr. Sonny Acho of Living Hope Christian Ministries. He invited me to participate as an ophthalmic surgeon in his Operation Hope medical mission for the opening of its new surgical hospital in Nigeria. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend last year, but he inspired me to pursue planning for attendance in the near future.
Although I had to take a pause in my international medical mission travel so I could dedicate more time to my family, I have continued to be involved with the Oraukwu Development Union in the Americas (ODUA) and its annual medical mission. This nonprofit organization engages in philanthropic causes, community development projects and promotion of peace in Oraukwu, Anambra State, Nigeria, and with its people here in America. My father was a founding member and the first president of the organization. He always remembered where he came from and answered the call to provide avenues to give back to his community, inspiring many through his kind deeds and generosity. Every year, I send ophthalmic medicine supplies (often supported by Bausch + Lomb) to be dispensed during the annual medical mission in December.
In addition to medical mission work abroad, I also am passionate about spreading the message of glaucoma awareness right here in our own backyard! Of the 3 million people in the U.S. who have glaucoma, only 50% actually know they have the disease. If I can make efforts to reduce that 50% in my lifetime, I will feel extremely fulfilled. I have partnered with the Glaucoma Research Foundation (GRF) to increase awareness through articles, informational videos, webinars and public glaucoma screenings. In addition, I am a GRF Ambassador, helping to raise awareness in my local area by distributing printed material.
Are you currently planning any trips for the future?
My next dream trip is to coordinate a medical mission trip with family in Nigeria. My daughter has a strong interest in ophthalmology, and I would love to foster this pursuit, in addition to the humanitarianism of giving through medical mission work. Even a small role can make a huge impact that could grow over a lifetime. We plan to coordinate a trip like this when school is out over the summer or in December.
To learn more about OWL, visit www.owlsite.org.