I still remember clearly being asked during my “phonetics” interview, prior to graduation from High School, in 1993 the question, what do you want to be when you grow up? I gladly replied- “I want to be a doctor” – with a huge smile on my face. The interviewer then said – ‘I bet you want to be a doctor so that your mom can be called mama doctor’. I sort of agreed with the idea and actually could not fault the concept of my mother being addressed as “mama doctor”. Little in my wildest dreams did I imagine at that time, the very varied paths I would have to traverse to become a doctor.
After receiving my grades for WAEC and JAMB, the next thing was to wait for admission into a selected field in the University. At that time, in Nigeria, I got into Biochemistry, which was my second choice. However, my first love and choice was Medicine. Hence, as a result of my strong yearning to be a Medical Doctor, I mostly hung out with the Medical Students despite being in the Biochemistry department at the University of Benin (UNIBEN).
Following my completion of the first year in Biochemistry, I was told that I could apply for transfer to Medicine year one on completion of my second year. I was willing to do this, irrespective of losing 2 years. Unfortunately, like most things in Nigeria, being successful with such transfer takes knowing someone of influence and not necessarily one’s academic prowess – this I did not have. I had come to cross roads. I struggled to decide what to do with my life. I was discontent with Biochemistry, yet I was not “connected” enough to get into my desired Medical School. During this period of trying to decide what my next move would be, I found out that I had won an American visa lottery. Thanks to my brother-in-law, who entered me for the lottery, my life was going to take a turn for the better! This, of course, was beyond my wildest dream, considering that at this point in my life I barely had one square meal a day. I had lost my dad and my mom was barely able to provide for our basic needs, such as food and clothing. I will leave the micro-details of that side of this story for some other time.
Ecstatic about my success, I Charles Nowoghomwenma Ibie, arrived in the United States, the land of opportunities on August 19th 1996. Shortly after my arrival, arrangements were made, by my brother-in-law, for me to attend the Certified Nurses’ Assistant (C.N.A) course, which I completed and was certified by January 1997. After being certified as a C.N.A, my brother-in-law then suggested that I take the admission exam for Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), which I did and got admission to by June of 1997. As I was about to complete my LPN program, I thought to myself, what do I need to become a doctor in this country? After all, that was the primary reason I came to this Country in the first place. Of course, this thought grew stronger as the days went by. I became obsessed with getting information on what next to do. It got to the point that I started asking everyone I met, what I needed to do to get accepted into Medical School in America. Unfortunately for me (at that time), I was unable to get a ready answer to my question. My dear readers, you need to bear in mind that those were the days when GOOGLE was not in existence and pay phones in booths were the best and cheapest ways to call.
Just when I was starting to realize how difficult the idea of becoming a medical doctor in the United States was, I received a card in the mail stating that I could join the Navy Medical Services. I was so excited, thinking that this meant Medicine, so I rushed to the naval recruiting office and told the recruiter that I would like to join the Navy. He asked me if I had completed High School, and I replied, “YES”! I went on to tell him that I was in an LPN program and would be done by July of that year. The recruiter looked at me with amazement and tried to DISCOURAGE (unheard of from a recruiter) me from joining the Navy. I insisted that I was keen to join, so he started taking me through the process of becoming an enlisted Navy personnel. However, he pointed out that I could not be considered to become a Naval Officer at this time, because I was not yet a United States Citizen. As the process continued, I realized that the “medical services” actually meant something equivalent to LPN and not MD, but at this point, I was too psyched to change my mind.
I went for Boot Camp September 15th 1998, after completing my LPN program in July of 1998 and taking the licensing exam August of that year. My first day in Boot Camp felt like hell, but I quickly adjusted to the system and thought the rest of the training was actually fun. After Boot Camp, I went to Hospital Corpsman Program, which was almost equivalent to the LPN program I just completed, so to say the least, the class was relaxing and fun. Considering how well I did at Hospital Corpsman School, I had the opportunity to choose whatever further training/location I would like to go next, so I chose to go to Medical Laboratory Technician School in Virginia, which I successfully completed in 1999. Again, considering my success in the Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT) program, I had the opportunity to choose where I would like to go next, so I chose to go to Jacksonville Florida.
On arrival to Jacksonville, Florida in January 2000, I started asking around again, on what I would need to become a physician and I had the ‘bright idea’ to call the medical school, to find out what would be required. I called a medical school in Florida, the person on the other end asked “Do you have a Bachelor’s degree?” I answered, “No”. “Then call us back when you do” and he hung up the phone. This journey was sure more “topsy-turvy” than I anticipated. Never the less, I told myself that I had two options which were – either I become a doctor or I become a doctor.
At this point most of my close friends and family were starting to say that I should be satisfied with what I had accomplished so far and move on with my life. Even though that seemed acceptable and seemed an easier path to take, I could not give up the idea of not becoming a doctor. I was not going to let myself be distracted from my goal of becoming a physician. That was what I was determined to become – I needed to contribute my positive quota to humanity. I needed to make a difference in the lives of people. I saw medicine the enabler of this desire. So, I kept on with my goal.
I discovered that I might get a better idea of what to do if I spoke to a Naval Counselor. I immediately scheduled an appointment with the Counselor WHO told me that I could get a degree in any subject matter and be accepted into Medical School, as long as I got top grades. Top grades? That was no problem! It never had been. I decided to get a degree in HealthCare Management because it had a more convenient schedule with my Naval Job. Convenient, meaning that I work a rotation of 6 nights on and 3 nights off then go to school most of the day.
After completing the degree in 2003, I proudly set up an appointment with the Medical School Counselor, so we could discuss how to apply to Medical School. During the discussion, she asked me for my science courses. I proudly presented my science courses that I had completed in Nigeria, and she stated that I would have to take all my science courses over again, because they would not accept the science courses I did in Nigeria. This was a huge blow. I did not expect it. I was determined not to be frustrated by this news. Rather, I got to work with a vengeance; if I could read those subjects before, I can do it again and again at anytime and anywhere. I decided to take the science courses as quickly as possible, so I could get Medical School started – there was no stopping me.
I completed the required sciences by 2004, and had Biochemistry to take for the spring semester in 2005, while I was applying for Medical School. Considering that I was still working full-time in the United States Navy, and had to complete the science courses in a timely manner, sleeping 3-4 hours a night from May 2003 to December 2004, became a luxury. Nevertheless, I got into Medical School while completing my Biochemistry course. Even though this seemed unbelievable to me at that time, it was VERY REAL!!!!! I completed Florida State University College of Medicine in 2009. Went on to complete residency in Internal Medicine at University of South Alabama and Fellowship in Nephrology at Tulane University.
Even though, my mom passed while I was completing my Fellowship, she did have the chance to be called “Mama Doctor” and I now have the rare privilege to make a positive difference in the lives of my patients.
In a nutshell, we all can achieve whatever we want to achieve as long as we are fully convinced that such achievement is possible for us. We all have dreams. We may have challenges on the way to the end point, however, never give up. YOU HAVE TO BE CONVINCED. No one can convince you, but yourself. NOTHING LIKE PERSISTENCE, DETERMINATION, AND A STRONG CONVICTION!
I am still on a mission to give my best to mankind for the rest of my life. I will leave you with the one of the sayings that kept me going when the days were dark and horizon seemed far: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.”- Audre Lorde