She grew up as the last of three children in Ibadan, a city in southwest Nigeria that at the time of Nigerian’s 1960 independence from Britain was the largest city in West Africa and the second largest in Africa after Cairo, Egypt. She has an older brother who is a chemical engineer and an older sister who is also a physician. Of her parents, she says: “They always pushed us to accomplish the best. I remember an incident when I scored 18 out of 20 on a test in primary school, and I was hoping to brandish my result in front of my dad. And on his looking at it, his response was “did the person who got 20 out of 20 have two heads?” Wow, I was immediately humbled and worked harder the next time.”
It was in nursery school that she says she realized she’d love mathematics and science.
“My nursery school teacher had to take the day off. So the principal, who had taken a liking to me, said that I should teach my mates what had been planned for the day. So here I was, with a piece of chalk and blackboard taller than I ever could be at the time -- I stood on a chair to teach the class. It was simple addition and subtraction, but goodness, I remember thinking this could be fun one day...It was an experience that made me want to learn more and be educated in the best way possible.”
When she was 14, Okuyemi and a friend, whose mother was the head of surgical pathology at one of Nigeria’s teaching hospitals, both told the pathologist over lunch that they wanted to be doctors. “She looked at us curiously and then said, ‘OK, come with me.’ We had no idea where we were going until we got to the morgue. She opened the door and waved us in. She said, ‘let’s find out if you really want to be doctors.’ And right there, we watched a post-mortem from start to finish, exploring all the organs...I loved every moment. I have always wondered if my friend’s mum wanted to see if we could stomach what was to come in medicine, or if she just wanted to watch two teenage girls squirm. Regardless, that experience most certainly was a major decision point for me -- it confirmed my choice of medicine and got me thinking specifically about surgery. I was grateful for it.”
After attending a Nigerian boarding school during what would have been high school in the U.S. -- Okuyemi says the experience taught her independence and diligence that have been most helpful in both her medical education and practice -- she emigrated to the U.S. for undergraduate studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “After secondary school, I knew I wanted to study medicine outside Nigeria. There were on-going faculty strikes in many universities in Nigeria at the time, which could amount to a delay in starting or continuing a medical education.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Rutgers, Okuyemi went on to obtain her MD at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She also completed a residency in otolaryngology and a master of science in clinic investigation there. She then completed a Head and Neck Oncology and Microvascular Surgery Fellowship at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics.
Originally, Okuyemi thought she’d specialize in cardiothoracic surgery. But in her third year of medical school during her ENT rotation, she saw a lower jaw being cut out due to a cancer, while simultaneously being recreated from a bone in the leg. “It was literally a jaw-dropping moment for me. I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, we do this in ENT? Sign me up!’ And that was how my journey into ENT began.”
Being a physician is a unique honor, Okuyemi says. She says providing hope and relief to people through the practice of medicine is something few others can do. It is a partnership, she says, that is “enveloped in a relationship of trust.” To help people at their most vulnerable, she stresses, is a privilege, one she says she holds “most dear and will never take for granted.”
Okuyemi says the ability to combine the expertise of head and neck cancer removal with immediate highly complex reconstruction is the specialized level of tertiary care in otolaryngology unique to her and her group in all of Nevada. Her goal is to galvanize head and neck cancer care in Las Vegas, and Nevada as a whole, through partnership with other physicians -- including, but not limited to, otolaryngologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, oral surgeons, plastic surgeons and speech therapists. She’d also like interested citizens in the community to get involved, believing it would accelerate access to care for these patients and further improve outcomes.
“Las Vegas is unique in having an abundance of the risk factors of smoking, alcohol and sunlight exposure that predispose to head and neck cancers,” she says. “ Any efforts to modify the abundance of these risk factors would be impactful.”
A naturalized citizen of the U.S., Okuyemi's take on Black History Month in February speaks to people of all backgrounds. “When I think about the month, I think that at the foundation of all races or tribes or ethnicities is one important element -- humanity. Our humanity underscores our essence, it underscores our being, and is the one thing that we all share. When we celebrate diversity, we are in essence celebrating humanity and that is such a powerful motivation for propelling humanity forward.”
Racism, Okuyemi says, has cost society a lot, and many lives have been painfully lost.
“I grew up in an African country where race was not a societally-conscious issue. As other African immigrants might be able to identify with, coming to a country where all of the sudden race is a conscious issue in society impacts your awareness differently. Have I seen or experienced situations in relation to racism so far? I have, ranging from the overt where a patient did not want to see a Black doctor, to the subtle circumstance. You know, what is so interesting is when operating during a surgery and the skin has been cut to gain access to the deeper tissues, looking at the structures before you look at the color of the outside skin ceases to be obvious and really does not translate to the internal structures. I could not tell apart the thyroid gland of one ethnic group from another by just looking at the gland while I am operating. The intricate color of the body organs and structures is the same in everyone no matter the race. So why then, should skin color which is only skin-deep, have so much stake in deciding fates or destinies? I believe that if we can really focus on the foundational element, the humanity that unites us all at the core, it allows us to respect and treat each other with dignity regardless of what we look like or where we come from, doing the best as we can, as God intended.”