As she was growing up in Nigeria, Caldwell Dominican Sister Uchenna Okereke, OP, was influenced by her father, one of a few in her neighborhood who owned an automobile. If anyone needed a ride to the hospital or to a doctor, neighbors called on him. He was the ambulance, Sister Uchenna said. His witness, as well as her teaching of biology, physics, and chemistry for nine years in the United States, helped her realize her own calling to study medicine and help those most in need. Her heart has always been with those who are poor, people living on the margins of society.
Sister Uchenna studied medicine at George Washington University, Washington, DC, and did her residency at St. Joseph Hospital, Paterson, NJ. Curious about the immune system and various types of infections, she chose to study infectious diseases, currently an evolving field in medicine. Sister studied at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School pursuing this field. The American Board of Internal Medicine certified her as a diplomate in infectious diseases. Sister Uchenna is most grateful to her Dominican Congregation for having allowed her to pursue medicine.
Today, Doctor Uchenna Okereke happily serves as the Medical Director of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, PA. As an infectious disease doctor, she is able to “see the poorest of the poor” due to the propensity for infection and HIV. Her work is very challenging. “Every time someone comes for help, you never know what needs to be addressed.” Her extensive studies and her expertise in diagnosing are invaluable to staff and patients alike.
Regarding the current Covid-19 pandemic, Conemaugh Medical Center has experienced similar situations as in other places. “People come and go, and hope to survive. Most situations involve couples, passing the virus from one to the other, a few not able to make it out alive. Some have come for testing, and, if they are not seriously ill, they may be sent to quarantine at home, others are admitted.”
Doctor Okereke recalled seeing four members of one family. A mother came in with the virus, went home, but came back with heart failure. That patient is now on hospice. Then her son-in-law came and was discharged; next, the daughter, who was also discharged. The fourth member “who may not make it” is now hospitalized.
Most of the patients have been in their fifties, but lately she sees older people, many due to not wearing masks. “Sometimes,” commented Doctor Okereke, “it is very frustrating. People are sick and we have nothing to treat the patients with or we lack the necessary protective gear.” The pandemic is still present, but the team at Conemaugh, led by Doctor Okereke, will continue to do everything in their power to offer excellent and compassionate care. And those of us who know and love our Sister Uchenna realize her healing love-energy is a graced gift she offers generously to all in need.