Investing in health care

Yvonne Okoh Onyike ’99 tends to a patient in a doctor's office

Yvonne Okoh Onyike ’99

Although she had a fast-track career on Wall Street, Yvonne Okoh Onyike ’99 decided to change direction.

A physics major while at Colgate, Onyike had considered working in a related field, but recruiters from Chase Manhattan Bank (now JPMorgan) — and a lifelong dream of living in New York City — put her on a different path. So, after graduation, Onyike moved to New York City and spent three years as a financial analyst, working on Wall Street and in Singapore. Although her career was taking off, ultimately, she decided she wanted to do something entirely different.

Onyike had a lingering desire to focus on global health and the underserved — an interest sparked by an international development class she took at Colgate.

“I wanted to marry my global health interest with my science background. I was passionate about going into medicine, but wanted to understand how to create change on a population-wide, community level,” Onyike said.

Born in a teaching hospital in Benin, Nigeria, she was particularly interested in the rates of maternal and infant morbidity in that country and in other sub-Saharan African countries. “Even for educated women, fifteen percent of all pregnancies there can end up in spontaneous complications,” Onyike said.

Based on her personal experience as well as her family’s — her paternal grandmother gave birth to nine children in Nigeria’s largest maternity hospital — “I felt that those narratives could easily have been my own,” Onyike said. So, she left JPMorgan to earn her master’s degree in public health at Columbia University.

During that time, she traveled back to Nigeria, where she had lived as an infant, in order to spend six weeks observing emergency obstetric care in three hospitals. It was her first time returning to her birth country.

Onyike went on to earn her medical degree at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Interested in the maternal-child health spectrum of care, she completed her residency in family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University/Fairfax Family Practice Centers. Somewhere in between the studying and working, she married her husband, Ndubueze, and had two children, Amara and Ikenna — now 4 and 1, respectively.

Today, Onyike practices family medicine at Unity Healthcare, Washington, D.C.’s largest nonprofit health and social services organization, which treats more than 93,000 individuals and families annually. Onyike works with a large population of patients who rely on Medicaid, providing primary care and walk-in services.

“My practice tends to lean toward reproductive health issues, STD screening, pregnancy counseling, uncontrolled hypertension, diabetes management, and general primary care,” she explained.

Onyike said she finds her interactions with her young female patients most meaningful. “Every day I meet young women who aspire toward something special,” she said. “While I am treating the medical condition, I am so inspired by faces that light up just by simply being asked about their life plans. It is an indescribable reward.”

— Written by Dan DeVries; Photo by Kanji Takeno