Ferdinand Ofodile, MD ’68, has healing in his blood line. His great-great-grandfather, a traditional medicine doctor in Nigeria, passed on his passion for medicine, as had been the family custom for generations. His uncle, the first family member trained in Western practices, became a famous surgeon in Nigeria in the 1950s and ’60s. Troubled by the poor healthcare he observed in his country, Ofodile followed their lead, forging his own path in medicine. Today, he is clinical professor of surgery at Columbia University and chief of plastic surgery at Harlem Hospital Center in New York.
Establishing a U.S. Home
After completing high school at a British-model boarding school in Nigeria, Ofodile came to Northwestern University for undergraduate studies through the Africa Scholarship Program of American Universities, a joint project of the Africa-America Institute, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and American universities that began in 1960. He connected with other America-bound students in Paris before boarding a ship to New York City. Arriving in the U.S., the 21-year-old met his host family from Rockford, Ill., with whom he would spend summers and vacations.
During his first year of medical school, the young Nigerian was elected class vice president and a student council representative. Ofodile was also a member of the Phi Chi Theta fraternity, which he says was a unique experience that enabled him to socialize with like-minded people.
“It was very gratifying to be elected as the vice president of my class,” he says. “As a foreign student, I felt accepted and welcomed by my peers.”
As for classroom experiences, he fondly remembers being taught by Leslie B. Arey, PhD, professor emeritus of embryology and anatomy.
“He was a fascinating man and rubbed off on me greatly. He instilled in me the hope that I had a chance to fulfill the dream of becoming a physician and being able to go back to Nigeria to help my country. My Nigerian peers and I had a lot of idealism.”
Charting his career
For years, Ofodile wanted to be a vascular surgeon to address cardiovascular disease. Returning to West Africa during the civil war, he saw person after person streaming in from the front lines with major injuries and deformities.
“I thought, ‘Somebody has to do something,’” he explains. “Seeing so many people who needed reconstructive surgery drove my interest toward plastic surgery.”
Back in the U.S., Ofodile completed his surgical training at Columbia Presbyterian and Harlem hospitals and his plastic surgery chief residency at the Mayo Clinic. He then returned to his home country to work as a lecturer and consultant at the University of Ibadan for six years.
While in Nigeria, Dr. Ofodile treated children with cleft lips and adults with post-burn injuries and deformities from war and car accidents. Despite helping these people, he felt hopeless.
“I really wanted to make an impact,” he recalls. “But by the time I got back to Nigeria in 1977, the country had changed. The healthcare system had deteriorated and there was little funding for universities. It was difficult to practice current medicine. There were so many patients, and so few resources.”
Going to Harlem
In 1982, Dr. Ofodile was inducted into the American College of Surgeons as a fellow. During his visit to New York, he was recruited to head up plastic surgery at Harlem Hospital.
“It became clear that I had to come back to the U.S. to be able to accomplish my dreams,” he says.
Ofodile had his work cut out for him ―to resuscitate a plastic surgery program that suffered from insufficient support. Within a year he turned it around and kept it going for two decades. In 2004, the program, which was initially begun by the first African American plastic surgeon in the U.S., became affiliated with the New York Presbyterian Hospital, under Cornell and Columbia universities. Plastic surgery residents now spend four months training at Harlem Hospital.
“Looking back at the progress we’ve made makes me feel proud,” he says. “At the same time, I also feel the weight of responsibility to continue the tradition of excellence in training and addressing the unique issues of the underserved African American community in the city.”
Black Nose Expertise
Dr. Ofodile’s special area of interest is the Black nose. Following his return to the U.S., he studied hundreds of Black noses from different cultures and classified them into three types.
The classifications helped him create varied approaches to reconstructive and cosmetic rhinoplasty and led him to design a nasal implant for the Black nose. He says black people have wider and lower bridges, while Caucasians have narrower and higher ones. Previously, implants were designed for Caucasian noses.
“You can’t put a Caucasian nose on a Black face,” he says. “My implant addressed that issue and improved the profile of the Black nose.”
Staying Connected to Africa
Even though Dr. Ofodile has lived in the States for many years, he remains active in medical education in Western Africa. He has helped train teachers in Nigeria to use new medical techniques and to connect African students and surgeons to opportunities in the U.S.
“I feel Nigeria has something to gain by having Nigerian-born doctors here in the U.S.,” he explains. “I have continued to encourage faculty to travel to Nigeria to give lectures and try to help education programs in plastic surgery.”
In March, Dr. Ofodile organized the conference of West African Plastic Surgeons in Lome, Togo. From early 2010 to 2013, Dr. Ofodile served as vice president of the Nigeria Higher Education Foundation, a group formed by the MacArthur Foundation to teach Nigerian universities how to raise money, so they are not limited by government funding.
“I find my work quite fulfilling,” he says. “There are not enough hours in the day for all the different things I need to do, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m grateful to Northwestern for preparing me for my career and for the education and opportunities that were available. The skills and knowledge I learned have been well-weathered, and I hope I have used them effectively.”