In today’s #MyCareerStory, the APH had the opportunity to interview Dr Douglas Okor. Douglas is a brain surgeon in the UK and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (the oldest Surgical College in the World).. In this insightful interview Douglas offers his perspective about life as a neurosurgeon and demystifies this pathway for aspiring surgeons. Enjoy!
APH: Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
I am Douglas Emeka Okor, Nigerian born, in Benin City in Nigeria. I am a brain surgeon and a passionate Nigerian health sector advocate and an entrepreneur. I grew up in Nigeria and had my education in Nigeria. I saw there was a significant gap in the healthcare space in Nigeria hence my decision to become a brain surgeon.
APH: Can you tell us about the different stages of your educational career to date?
Douglas: I had my nursery, primary and secondary education in Nigeria. I went to a grammar school in Benin City and the University of Benin where I graduated in 2002. I worked for a couple of years in Nigeria then left for the UK where I spent 8-9 years training to become a brain surgeon. In the last year I started my sub-specialist training in two areas – skull based and vascular neurosurgery.
APH: When did you decide you wanted to become a medical doctor?
Douglas: My dad was a pharmacist and as a PhD graduate he had respect among his peers and people called him Dr…I liked that and I was inspired by it. Also an aunt of mine played a part too. So the seeds were sown then.
APH: How long would it take someone to complete training to become a doctor or a neurosurgeon?
Douglas: It is dependent on where you go to medical school. For me, medical school in Nigeria was 6 years, then I had one year internship aka housemanship, followed by one year national service aka NYSC. I moved to the UK and the main training for neurosurgery is an average of 8 years (could be more). There is also an unwritten rule you have to do subspecialist training for 1 year. In the UK medical school is usually 5 years, then a foundation year (2 years) then speciality training for 8 years. So on average this would take between 17-20 years..this highlights the need for passion!!
APH: Can you shed more light on your areas of specialism?
Douglas: Neurosurgery itself is the management or treatment of patients who have medical conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord and structures surrounding both the brain and spinal cord as well as nerves supplying the rest of the body. This management includes diagnosis, treatment, prevention and rehabilitation of patients with such problems. This area of specialisation is complex because of the amount of time it takes to train. It is a speciality where the margin for error is very little (almost 0). Lots of adrenaline! also technically and professionally challenging.
There are also sub specialties which include paediatric neurosurgery, functional neurosurgery, complex spinal neurosurgery, vascular neurosurgery, neuro-oncology neurosurgery, pituitary neurosurgery and skull-based neurosurgery. I have spent the last year training on the skull-based neurosurgery dealing with management of patients with medical problems that have to do with the base of the skull.
APH: Can you describe a typical working day as a neurosurgeon?
Douglas: In a week you have different clinics, operating days, on-call days and meeting days. Clinics are usually full days, theatre days are usually longer days and often can last 12 hours. Meeting days are usually straightforward (with meetings for a few hours) and the on-call days are usually 24 hours and during the on-call days you deal more with emergency patients. In neurosurgery practice you have emergency patients and elective patients. With the elective patients, they patients usually have medical problems but you are able to delay treatments for some days or weeks but with emergency patients you have to attend to within the hour or within the day.
APH: What do you like the most and what do you like the least about your job?
Douglas: As a neurosurgeon, the privilege to see and to give joy to patients and their families with complex medical problems and often people in life threatening situations is what I love about my job. Also, the environment to work with skilled people at all levels included physiotherapists, pharmacists, nurses, other specialists etc. I also enjoy the respect that we get as brain surgeons from other colleagues and others. As for what I like the least (difficult to answer!) – the hours! The amount of hours on the job and time away from family is what I like the least.
APH: What skills would you suggest that our young and early career readers need to succeed in medicine and particularly neurosurgery?
Douglas: Firstly for those thinking of medicine as a career which would bring money & riches, discountenance such notions. For such a career, you need empathy, an attitude of helping and making life better for others and a socio-cultural platform for the value of human life. With regard skills, you need to be able to adapt to different circumstances.
For neurosurgery, you have to be generally above average intelligence, be adaptable and have very good hand to eye coordination. You need good visio-spatial coordination and if you are artistic you have an edge.
APH: What is the value of keeping art in the science or medical discourse or learning?
Douglas: I think it is absolutely important. The science helps you understand diseases and diagnosis but you mind and your decision process can be aided by art…this especially goes to parents who believe that to be successful in your community you have to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer and all…I think having an appreciation for the arts is crucial in surgery.
APH: Any thoughts on the role of family/parents in career choices of their children?
Douglas: Environment is very important. In the African/Nigerian perspective, this is driven by economic factors. The key thing here is passion. The important thing is for parents to understand their children; know what skills their children have, generally give them guidance and support. I believe this advice also applies to parents from other parts of the world.
APH: Do you have any mentors?
Douglas: Maybe my dad served as a mentor at the time however with regard to medical school, I had no mentors. Perhaps role models like Dr Ben Carson were important. In the UK, I met a number of people who became mentors and were influential in my journey e.g. Sir Professor Graham Teasdale, one of the originators of the Glasgow Coma Scale which is used globally to measure level of consciousness…Mentors are indeed fundamental! In Africa, there is a large gulf to be filled where it comes to mentors and this is something that is of key interest to me.
APH: Have you made any mistakes and what did you learn from them?
Douglas: I remember I didn’t do well in biochemistry in the 3rd year of medical school which got me asking myself “what am I doing”. In recent years, I failed the 3rd part of my membership exams for the Royal College. It was devastating! It humbled me and made me realise that even if you fail in a particular thing that failure is a part of life. I also try to channel this to young people when I speak to them.
Steel is stronger than iron because it passes through fire. You will have difficulties, failures, mistakes; this helps crystallize you and helps you build strength of character.
APH: What is your proudest achievement to date?
Douglas: Passing the intercollegiate speciality board exam for neurosurgery. Also, going through training to become a brain surgeon in the UK as a non-resident presented a lot of challenges; my accent…very little support and the “expectation” that I would not succeed meant this was indeed quite an achievement. Secondly it meant this would serve as an inspiration to other Nigerians, Africans etc…that no matter how difficult a dream looks, it is achievable
APH: Finally, how do you maintain a sense of balance while juggling your different roles – both personal and professional?
Douglas: Whatever happens at work stays at work. And whenever I am with my family or other commitments I dedicate my full-time to that as well. I have developed the ability to manage my time very well. Critical for me is time management; commitment to work, my family and mentoring young people.
Apart from being a brain Surgeon, Douglas is involved in a number of charity projects including raising awareness and funding for several chronic health related issues. Douglas and his wife Loretta (See article – Anyone can be a professional ) run the Ashanti Graham Health and Education Initiative foundation with a vision for a 21st century healthcare for Nigerians.
Thank you Douglas, for sharing your #MyCareerStory with us. If you enjoyed reading this article, please share and subscribe to our network! Would you like to share an article in The Hub? We would love to hear from you. Please get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org.