May 13, 2022
Dr. Emeka Nchekwube is a neurosurgeon at Regional Medical Center. In his more than 40 years of serving San Jose, he’s been looked to help thousands of people during the hardest times of their lives. How does he do it? By focusing on the simple things.
Nchekwube was born in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria. He grew up during a period of unrest and civil war. But he was determined and bright and excelled in school. So much so that was getting noticed. That’s when one day while in high school, he got a surprise call. It was the Soviet Union.
They identified him as an outstanding student and offered him a scholarship to attend Moscow University. It was the height of the Cold War, and international scholarships were becoming increasingly popular, particularly large-scale American and Soviet programs designed to promote socioeconomic and political ideas around the world.
But the United States had their own plans. They intercepted the communists’ offer with an opportunity to be the guest of the United States. He would attend university in Michigan. It would still be cold in the winter, but not a USSR-grade of cold. Plus, democracy.
Nchekwube accepted the U.S.’s offer, enrolling in the University of Central Michigan, where he received a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. He then attended medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. There, another miraculous act arose.
To get into Wayne State, he needed to put down a deposit. Short on cash and time, he liquidated all his assets to make the first payment. He worried about the next bill. But it never showed up, and neither did the next one, or the next one. Administrative error? An act of kindness? He doesn’t know. But he eventually earned scholarship money due to his high academic achievements.
He graduated, did a surgical internship at Indiana University, and returned to Wayne State to complete his neurosurgical residency. After school, new frontiers were calling. So he headed west, alongside his wife Donna, where he’d start what would become a long, storied career as a neurosurgeon, right here in San Jose, CA.
As fate would have it, his first position was at Alexian Brothers Hospital, which is now Regional Medical Center. He took over the practice of Ghanaian neurosurgeon who was moving on to a more stable teaching position. He described his arrival as the “Wild West,” with high acuity and trauma, and little coordination among hospitals. But far from fazed, he was ready to work.
One day, he was caring for a patient dying of metastatic cancer. Nearing the end, she wanted red wine and cheese. She knew it was not a standard post-operative diet. But she had to ask.
Nchekwube left the hospital, quickly returning with her requested feast, and delivered it straight to a delighted patient. He visited the patient often before she passed, bringing her wine, cheese, and the comfort of conversation.
Years later, he ran into someone who knew him. It was the patient’s mother, and she recounted the sheer joy his daughter got out of her modest meal.
Later in his career, a newly hired CEO found him. He had a question: How can we improve the patient experience? Without skipping a beat, Nchekwube replied.
“Nutmeg,” he said. The confused CEO demanded an explanation, and Nchekwube had one.
He was caring for a patient once who had driven from an affluent area in seek of his care. While doing post-operation rounds, he stopped by and asked if there was anything she needed. The patient did want something, but not something typically on the menu at a hospital: Warm milk with a pinch of nutmeg.
Nchekwube again went shopping, purchasing the nutmeg. He asked the attending nurse to prepare the milk, add the spice, and deliver it to the patient. And after discharge, the patient praised the hospital for its service and attention to personal touches.
These are just a few stories out of the thousand untold. But they demonstrate values that Nchekwube holds dear.
“The simple things in life often have the greatest meaning and value,” Nchekwube explains. “And doing ordinary things extraordinarily well leads to excellence.”
In addition to the clinical care Dr. Nchekwube provides, he has pursed several research interests and holds several patents and pending patents. He’s looking into African herbs and their potential health benefits and low cost. He’s also studying how to convert the raw biomass from flies into fertilizer, which would be completely biodegradable, safe to the environment, and would particularly benefit developing nations.
Even after more than 40 years of caring for San Jose, he has no plans of slowing down.
“My life’s work is care, and I don’t plan on stopping.”