It's a Neurology Match!
Mfoniso Ekpo—On Her Journey from Nigeria to Duke
By Jamie Talan
May 4, 2023
Born and raised in Nigeria, Mfoniso Ekpo attended a public federal boarding high school that specialized in training students for careers in math, engineering, and science as well as the arts and economics. But ever since she was little, she knew she wanted to be a doctor.
It was not an easy road to get there. Her father died in a bus accident when she was just 3, and four years later, her mother, a nurse midwife, moved to the United States to seek better opportunities for her family. Mfoniso's grandparents raised her and her two brothers until their mother could send for them.
Mfoniso's grandmother also was a nurse midwife, a position revered in their community. The family lived comfortably but was surrounded by poverty and a broken health care system. Mfoniso knew several children who never lived long enough to finish college, including a classmate who died while giving birth; the baby died, too. Two of her friends died of complications from diabetes without knowing anything was wrong with them.
Mfoniso was 17 when the visas and paperwork finally came through for her to come to the US. In Connecticut, she reunited with her mother, who had become certified as a registered nurse. Her brothers, already enrolled in universities in Nigeria and Ghana, arrived a few months later. Mfoniso enrolled in a nearby community college, graduated two years later, and signed on to finish a bachelor's degree in biology at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. At that point, she thought about becoming a nurse practitioner or physical therapist but decided to take the MCAT and apply to medical school, inching closer to her dream of becoming a doctor.
Accepted into Western Michigan University's Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, Mfoniso began a one-year master's degree program in biomedical science followed by medical school. In her fourth month of medical school, word came that she and the other students had to go home because of the pandemic. Mfoniso moved back to Connecticut with her husband—she had married her boyfriend from Nigeria—to continue online schooling.
At the end of 2020, Mfoniso began hybrid studies, and the couple returned to Michigan. During clinical rotations, the medical students were not allowed to treat COVID patients. Still, she enjoyed her clinical training, especially in neurology. She felt a personal connection to the field, having lost an uncle to a subarachnoid hemorrhage and living with years of migraine and bouts with malaria (including cerebral malaria) during her childhood in Nigeria.
In her fourth year of medical school, Mfoniso spent four weeks on the neuro-ICU floor. She watched patients die and helped others in their recovery. She learned how to talk to families and loved the journey of figuring out a puzzle of symptoms.
Mfoniso credits several neurologists for inspiring her to move forward. Larry Morgan, DO, a neurologist and neuro-intensivist with Bronson Neuroscience Center in Kalamazoo, MI, taught her to feel comfortable saying when she did not know something—to “figure it out and have an answer and know why you are doing it,” Mfoniso said.
Christopher Kaps, MD, and Roderick Dizon, MD, both neurologists and neuro-hospitalists at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, “created a healthy environment for learning and education and were always available for questions outside of medicine.” They also prepared her for a rotation in UT Southwestern in Dallas, TX, a referral center that showed her neurologic disorders she had only seen in textbooks. Mfoniso
Mfoniso was absolutely set on a neurology residency and had about 26 residency interviews; Duke University School of Medicine came last.
“There were many people who looked like me, including some Nigerians during the Virtual Second Look day, and I felt an overwhelming sense of comfort and home. They all stole my heart,” she said. She ranked 18 programs, and Duke was her top choice.
On Match Day, with her family by her side, Mfoniso let her husband open her envelope. All at once, everyone around her started chanting, “Duke! Duke!” It went on for two minutes.
Mfoniso hopes to specialize in neurointensive care.