Noreen Chioma Okwara was a teenager in Mombasa, Kenya, when her 9-year-old brother died from injuries he suffered in a car accident because he didn’t get the medical care he needed.
From that time on, Okwara knew her life’s mission was to become a doctor.
“In medicine, I found a reason to keep going,” said Okwara, 27. “It was this hope that there was something I could do about it, that I could keep someone from going through what I went through. That hope is what kind of propelled me towards medicine.”
A couple years after the accident, her family of mixed Nigerian-Kenyan heritage immigrated to the U.S. Okwara was 17 when she landed in Lowell and began the long process of adjusting to a new life in a new place so distant in so many ways from everything she knew.
Rather than enroll in high school, Okwara earned her GED, passed the SAT and was quickly accepted into Middlesex Community College. She took classes at MCC for a year before transferring to UMass Boston, where she earned her bachelor of science in biology in four years.
Okwara held multiple jobs to help pay for her schooling: restaurant hostess, therapeutic assistant at a longterm care facility and researcher at a UMass laboratory. Her work in phytoremediation, or using plant enzymes to break down environmental pollutants, became part of her thesis project.
After graduation, Okwara spent a year doing research at a higher level: at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. She studied HIV immunoregulation under Dr.
Anthony Fauci, the lab’s principal investigator and “the voice of infectious disease in the U.S.,” Okwara said.
“It was an amazing, amazing time,” she said.
Okwara said she learned a lot from him and the other “amazing minds” she worked with scientifically, but what stuck with her most was their patience and dedication to the cause. Research can be thankless work, especially when you don’t see results right away, she said.
Okwara returned to Massachusetts to attend UMass Medical School in Worcester, and is due to graduate in June with her doctor of medicine.
During both her undergraduate and medical education, Okwara was a recipient of the Charles D. Baker II Scholarship, created by now Gov. Charlie Baker in honor of his grandfather. The elder Baker never had the opportunity to pursue higher education, but ensured each of his children did. The scholarship is awarded on need and merit to outstanding UMass students who, like the elder Baker, “approached each day and each challenge with persistence, optimism and grace” in the face of hardship.
On March 7, Okwara attended UMass President Marty Meehan’s “State of the University” address at the UMass Club in Boston. She said she assumed invitations were sent to students at random, and hadn’t planned to go until she received some gentle urging from Meehan’s office.
Much to her surprise, Meehan called Okwara out as an example of the talent and perseverance of UMass students and alumni.
On Friday, March 17 at UMass Medical School — “Match Day” — Okwara learned where she would head on the next leg of her journey: residency.
Okwara had applied to multiple internal-medicine residency programs at hospitals and universities around the country. She interviewed at 18 places, flying to locations as far as Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
While her classmates were in a tizzy of nervous anticipation, Okwara remained mostly calm. She told herself that no matter where she ended up, she would give it her best.
“I always kind of believed God leads me to the places I need to be,” Okwara said.
She was overcome with joy when she opened her envelope and discovered she was placed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. It was in her top three choices, but she never thought she’d get into the highly competitive program, one of the best in the country.
“I’m going to be working with some of the brightest minds in medicine,” Okwara said, noting the preparation she’s now undertaking. “It’s going to be a great opportunity to learn a lot of things, but I also know it will be challenging.”
Joyful UMass Medical students get postings
There were tears of joy and screams of excitement as the largest graduating class to celebrate Match Day at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) opened the envelopes that told them where they will begin their medical careers.
At UMMS, the state’s only public medical school, more than 100 students gathered in the medical school lobby to open envelopes to reveal the hospital residency program with which they were matched.
Matches are made via computer by the National Resident Matching Program and are kept secret until Match Day.
The event was described as more emotional than the graduation ceremony by some of the 127 medical students waiting in anticipation, with most going into primary care practice.
Among this year’s students being matched: a former U.S. Marine deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who wants to work with veterans taking opioids for chronic pain; a first-generation college graduate who attended Boston University at a reduced cost because his mother worked there as a secretary and whose father, who worked as a machinist for 35 years, died during the student’s first year of medical school; an Auburn native whose mother passed away last year from glioblastoma; a young woman, whose family immigrated from Kenya to Massachusetts; and a former youth circus acrobat.
One couple from Leicester waited patiently with their 7-year-old son, hoping for a match at UMass Memorial Medical Center to allow them to continue to live in Leicester and stay in the area where they said they have roots and family. The couple said they visited prospective matches in New York, New Jersey and other areas and ranked them. UMass came out on top for them, they said.
“It’s so overwhelming,” Andy Dowd, 32, said while waiting with wife Michele A. Dowd, 33, a wedding photographer, and son Ashley A. Dowd, 7. “We’ve been to at least three (possible) matches. This is a more emotional day than graduation. You already know you’re graduating – that’s a given. You don’t know where you’re match will be. It’s a roller coaster of emotions.”
Ms. Dowd said supporting her husband through medical school was stressful at times, but it was an incredible journey. Ashley smiled and said he was proud of his dad.
“The best part is, I feel like his accomplishments are also my accomplishments,” Ms. Dowd added.
Courtney M. Temple, 30, from Grafton, who specialized in emergency medicine, said she was excited and nervous at the same time. Married for three years, she said a hurdle for her and her classmates during medical school was balancing her training with her family life, but UMass does an incredible job making sure that is possible.
“It is my dream to stay here,” she said. “I am local from Central Massachusetts, and I really love the community, and my four years at UMass were incredible. I’m really lucky we have such a strong program in emergency medicine near home.”
Chioma Okwara, 27, from Lowell, who came to the United States from Kenya in 2007 and has dual citizenship in Nigeria and the U.S., studied internal medicine and hoped to get matched with Brown University.
“They have patient-centered care,” Ms. Okwara said. “Also, there is a huge focus on education of residents and taking care of residents’ well-being in general.”
After brief remarks from UMass Chancellor Michael F. Collins and other UMass officials, the names of the students were called out one by one to receive their envelope s — the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. When all had their envelopes in hand, there was silence before they were told to open them, then sounds of elation filled the medical school lobby.
Mr. Dowd had tears in his eyes as he hugged his wife and son and said, “I’m staying here.”
Out of the 127 students, 26 were matched to UMass, 28 to hospitals in Boston and eight to hospitals in Providence.