Ghanaian-born, Harvard-trained Dr. Michael K. Obeng is one of the most sought-after cosmetic experts in the United States today. Over the course of his two-decade career as director of MiKO Plastic Surgery in Beverly Hills, he has performed makeovers by cosmetic surgery for Hollywood elite, supermodels, musicians and royalty. He was the first Black plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, and he is easily one of the most recognizable cosmetic surgeons in the United States today.
But Obeng’s life was not always so glamorous. Born into poverty in Ghana, Dr. Obeng worked various jobs and surmounted extraordinary obstacles to put himself through school in the United States. Now a successful cosmetic surgeon and entrepreneur, Dr. Obeng is giving back. In 2008, he founded R.E.S.T.O.R.E, a non-profit organization that provides free reconstructive surgery to patients from emerging countries.
In the past 13 years, R.E.S.T.O.R.E has performed more than 1,500 surgeries in Africa and Central America, worth more than $70 million, free of charge. He is also building a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical plant in Ghana to curb the importation of fake drugs into the country.
Dr. Obeng recently chatted with Billionaires.Africa Editor-in-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe where he recounted his journey.
— You were born into poverty in Ghana and today you’re one of the most revered plastic surgeons in the United States – and the world. Quickly take us through your journey from your childhood to your current station in life. What was growing up in Ghana for you like and what are the series of events that led you into becoming one of the most renowned plastic surgeons in the world?
— Thank you very much for your question. Having been born in Ghana in an environment which at the time was not very typical of modern-day Ghana, the opportunities were not always there. But one thing Ghanaians always strive for is the love and education. I had the privilege to be raised by a good family; my grandmother, mother, aunts, uncles…basically the whole village.
I started my schooling at K.O. Methodist Primary School in Ash-town, Kumasi for my first and second grades. I don’t remember much during that time except for the fact that in first grade I didn’t like school at all. Instead of being in class I would skip class and go to the park to watch people performing magic tricks. I never wanted to go to class. I just didn’t like school at all. I was 6 years old at the time and I would sit and watch them. I was mesmerised by the set-up pick-pocketers. But something sparked in second grade where I found my gift. I was very drawn to mathematics, my second-grade teacher made an impact and I fell in love with math. At that early age, as a second-grader, I could do complex fourth-grade mathematics.
My family then moved from the inner city when I was in third grade to our village, Adiebeba-Ahodwo. When we moved to that village, I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in one of the best elementary schools in the area – Nhyieaso International School (NIS). Most of the kids there were very well-off and came from really great families and most of them had a very good command of the English language. I felt slightly “disadvantaged” not being able to speak English that well but nevertheless, I knew that I was probably smarter than everyone else, so I had a chip on my shoulder to prove that I was going to be the best student in that class, i.e. third grade.
I made my mark after a few weeks to become one of the best students in the class. NIS was good to me. I ended up graduating as one of the best students at that school and I also served as the school prefect which is the ultimate leadership role at any school a student can ever hold. One of my most memorable, profound, and inspirational moments at NIS was a pep talk/speech by my fifth-grade teacher, Master Manteaw. He talked about perseverance. He said that “perseverance conquers all difficulties” and that phrase never left me. It became my guiding principle that whatever my background or family status was, if I worked hard and never gave up, I could become anything I set my mind to. I recently found out that Master Manteaw passed away. That’s the only teacher that I remember from my elementary school days because of the impact he made in my life. I will never forget him.
It was mandatory to take the Common Entrance Examination which I did and in 1985 I enrolled at Prempeh College High School. At the time most people in Ghana went to boarding school because of the lack of transportation to go back and forth from school to home and vice-versa, except the wealthy ones, because they had access to transportation. At Prempeh College I excelled academically, and I assumed lots of leadership roles at that early age. Prempeh College also instilled discipline and hard work in me. It also taught me how to be a man especially for a young boy growing up with no father actively in my life. Prempeh College taught me table manners/etiquette, how to tie a tie, and the little things that we take for granted. In 1990 I took the General Certificate Examination (GCE) “O Levels” and I got a distinction, obtaining six 1’s “A” out of eight subjects. With this grade, I could have gone to any other high school of my choice to finish my “A” levels, but I chose to stay back in Kumasi and attended Prempeh College.
During my time at Prempeh College, I was also elected by the faculty and the senior students in the foremost leadership positions to be one of the Big 6 leaders on campus. I ultimately ended up serving as the Assistant Dining Hall Prefect. During my sixth form, I wasn’t too focused because I had my eye on going to America – the land of opportunity, to study. So, most of my time was split between trying to get by with my “A” levels and also trying to study for the SAT and applying to American universities.
I didn’t do too well on my “A” levels, which did not come as a surprise because I did not put in much effort. However, my efforts landed me an acceptance to Midwestern State University. The story of me enrolling at Midwestern State University is a story that deserves its own interview for another time.
On Aug. 20, 1993, I left Ghana to go to the United States with one bag, a few clothing items, and less than $200 in my pocket, but I felt ecstatic as though I was going to heaven! When I arrived in America on Saturday, Aug. 21, at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., I was greeted by my uncle, cousins, and family friends. I’d never felt so happy and was excited to be in America! That day I had one of the very best meals in my life. I had access to unlimited food; chicken, fish, rice, jollof, banku, etc. without anybody monitoring how much meat or food I had eaten and that was a good feeling to eat buffet-style, something I had never done in my life growing up in Ghana. So, when I arrived in the United States, that was one of the happiest days of my life. I now felt like the sky was the limit.
Even though I came here to go to school, I knew that I could not go to school right away, because I did not have the money for the tuition, with all the adjustments by the school, I was still responsible for about $15,000 a year for tuition and room and board. At the time, nobody in my family had $15,000 a year to pay for this. So I had to be creative. I deferred my admission and I worked. I started work a week after I got to America; I was ready to work.
I worked many menial jobs, sometimes 2-3 times at a time. I worked at a bakery, making pita bread in Alexandria, Virginia. A few weeks later, I added a second job working at an African grocery store where I was responsible for cutting up meat. This was the least favourite of all the jobs I’ve ever had in my life. Growing up in Ghana. I wasn’t a meat person.I did not like even going into the meat market. I didn’t even go for the person I loved the most, my grandmother. In America, I needed employment to be able to save up and go to school and one of my most memorable time working there was when a Ghanaian woman who came up to me one day and said in my language, “young man, you are way too handsome for this job” and that day I cried. When I got home, I wished I could call my grandmother. But of course, back then the telecommunication systems were not as robust as it is today. But that never deterred me from my ultimate goal. The reason why I came to America was to go to school and ultimately study medicine and become a plastic surgeon.
With determination, hard work, and the grace of the almighty God, I never gave up. I was able to save up the money to be able to afford my first semester, but this also did not come easy. I remember picking up a third job.So in those special four months, I worked my tail off. Of course, the third job almost killed me because I would wake up at six in the morning to go to work at the bakery and get off at 2:30 PM. At 3:30 PM, I’d be at the African grocery store. All of these jobs were within a walking distance. I’d work at the African grocery store from 3:30 PM to about 9:30 PM. And then when we were done by 11 PM, I would be at my last job where we were sorting out and loading trucks for the mall, that one, it was a long walk. I had to sometimes take the bus and I’d get back home about 2 AM. And then I’m waking up again at 5:30 AM to be awake at 6 AM, but I only did the third job for two weeks, and I got sick. So I quit the third job.
Okay. Fast forward. College was not easy. It was a different transition for me. And once I figured it out, it became easy. In my first semester, I made a 4.0 GPA. I was very stressed out because I did not know where my next meal was going to come from. I ate a lot of apples, that’s why I am allergic to apples (chuckles). However, life became easier. I came back to Virginia that summer where I stayed with my cousin again. I started a job within the first week after school was out, working at Commercial Carpets of America (CCA) on South Pickett Street in Alexandria, Virginia.
You know, God showed his face again. Like he always does. I wasn’t sure if I would have even made it back to school because I witnessed intense stress. So towards the end of the semester, they were looking for a resident assistant. And the resident assistant position is a leadership position with a lot of perks. You are basically in charge of a wing in the dorm.That job came with room and board. So if I could get that job, I wasn’t going to have to worry about food and a place to stay. By the grace of God, I was able to go through and I was selected among the few that applied for the job out of over 100 applications.
So now I felt more secure going home because now I knew that I can come back and all I have to do in the summer was to work, make enough money, to be able to pay my tuition. I went back to Virginia.
My job at CCA was cutting carpets and helping install them. That was one of my favourite jobs. I got to drive a forklift at the warehouse, and it was fun. That summer, tragedy hit: the most amazing person in my life and the love of my life at the time, my grandmother passed away. It was sad, but I was also relieved because when I left Ghana, she had just had a stroke. And she used to beg me to give her something to kill her because she couldn’t bear the pain and misery. And I can promise you this, if I knew how to give her something, to make her achieve her goal, I would have.I was really sad, but I was happy. I was happy that the Lord had called her home.
That summer I worked, I was able to make enough money. Of course, I made some bad decisions and some good decisions. The worst was buying a car with some of the money I had made. I bought a burgundy Chrysler New Yorker and I was mesmerised by the sound it made when you left doors not properly closed. However, within the two weeks the transmission went out and I ended up leaving the car in D.C. and went back to school carless, lesson learned. SMH!
At this time, I felt more secure because I knew that I was going to have food. Life started to become easier. So all I had to do was just to study. In my second semester tragedy hit again, my mother passed away. I was very shocked. I was expecting my grandmother to die, but when my mother passed away, it came as a shock. Of course, you know, it was a very tough time for me. But it never deterred me from my ultimate goal. The saddest part of it was the fact that I did not have the money to come back to Ghana to bury my mother.
That was one of the toughest moments, toughest times in my life. I cried all night. I missed class the next day. The following day I went back to class, took a make-up exam that I had missed the previous day and life went on. It was a very trying time for me. By the grace of God, I was able to finish university in a timely fashion. It took me three years. I never took a class for granted. I did not have the luxury of taking a class that I didn’t need. If I remember correctly, I think we needed about 124 credits to graduate. And I got exactly 124 credits. And I graduated with an honours degree in chemistry, biology, and mathematics.
I was accepted to medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch and my goal of becoming a plastic surgeon was very well intact. With the help of Dr. Linda Phillips who took me under her wings, Dr. David Herndon, the former chief of staff the Shriners Burns Hospital, I was on the right path to becoming a plastic surgeon. I got my first publication within a few months that I was introduced to Dr. Herndon. He connected me up with the late Dr. Robert. L. McCauley, who made my first publication a reality. I will be forever indebted to all these great mentors. I also got my first National Institute of Health (NIH) grant. The NIH grant afforded me the opportunity to get into the competitive world of plastic surgery.
Fast forward. After five years of residency, I was accepted at Harvard for my fellowship in plastic surgery. It was at Harvard where R.E.S.T.O.R.E came to my mind. Of course, this was a seed that dates back to when I witnessed the good deeds of Operation Smile in Ghana, at the tender age of about 12 or 13. As well as words of encouragement from one of my mentors, Dr. John H. Miller. The best advice I ever got was when I was leaving Harvard from my mentor and Chief for Plastic Surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. James. W. May Jr. gave me the best advice, and I will never forget that. Every young surgeon needs an opportunity; needs to be around great mentors.
— How and when did you start MiKO Plastic surgery in Beverly Hills, and how did you grow it into one of the most prestigious plastic surgery practices in the United States — and the preferred choice of many well-known celebrities? Can you share some of the highs and lows you experienced while building MiKO Plastic surgery into the incredible success that it is today?
— Thank you for the question again. Moving to Beverly Hills was an easy decision for me, but it was very difficult at the same time. At the time, leaving a salary-paying job close to half a million dollars a year, to come into an environment that I did not know how I was going to get my first patient, was very frightening. But I’ve always believed in myself because I know God is with me.My financial planner told me I wasn’t going to make it past six months. This was in 2012, post the financial crash of 2008 in the United States. No banks were lending money.
When I approached my bank in Ohio to lend me a million dollars to start my practice, they told me “Dr. Obeng, we love you, but we can’t give you $1 million to set up a practice in Los Angeles because no one knows you there and besides there’s just too much competition. If you want it to stay in this community in Ohio we will help you.” The hospital said they would help me open my own private practice in the community. I can be a little stubborn and I believe in myself. I said no but thank you and moved on. We dropped the business plan that my financial planner had put together, we dropped the asking loan from $1 million to $750,000 to $500,000 to $250,000, even to $100,000, and nobody was willing to give me a loan to start a business. In a typical Michael fashion, I said, we’re going to defy the odds again. I told my financial planner, Patrick. I said, Patrick, you know what? I don’t care. I said, liquidate my retirement — all my investments and my retirement account and give me the money. And I’m going to go to Beverly Hills. If I fail it’s on me. And if I do well, it is on God. Patrick pulled aside my wife at a time and said, this guy’s crazy. You know, he said, “I’m telling you, if you don’t talk to him, you guys are not going to last more than six months”. It’s almost a decade and I’m not doing too shabby. The Lord has been good to me.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning moving to a new city and not knowing that many people. I had to work at another plastic surgery office whilst building my office and practice. I worked there in the morning from 6 AM to about 5 PM. And then I would leave and come to my office and work from about 5 PM till about 8:30 PM. You know, these are things that young people don’t want to do anymore because everybody wants instant gratification, but I knew I had to survive. And I knew I had to be able to make enough money to feed my family.
— In 2008, you founded R.E.S.T.O.R.E, a non-profit organization that provides free reconstructive surgery to third world patients. What was the motivation to establish the programme and what are some of the more significant work it has done around the world until date. So far, you have performed procedures worth over $50 million for free. How do you raise funds? Do you have partners, or are they self-funded?
— R.E.S.T.O.R.E was actually founded in 2007 when I moved from Boston to Ohio. But the first official trip I took under R.E.S.T.O.R.E was in 2008 to go to Ghana and explore plastic surgery and how I can help and give back to the community that raised me. As I mentioned earlier R.E.S.T.O.R.E and plastic surgery was something that was introduced to me by the organisation, Operation Smile. When they came to Ghana when I was about 12 or 13 and did surgery to correct a deformity on a woman who lived in my neighbourhood, whose partner poured acid on her face. And when I saw the lady’s new look and the new confidence she had, I asked my friend who was the little brother of the lady for details of what had happened. He told me that a group of doctors from the United States did plastic surgery on her. And I was in awe; that was the first time I’d heard about plastic surgery.
That was how plastic surgery was introduced to me. When I was in medical school, Dr. John H. Miller planted the seed in my head one day while I was assisting him to do surgery. He looked at me, said, “Michael, you’re from Ghana, right?” I said,“Yes sir!” He said, “Why don’t we go to Ghana and do free surgery?” During that time as a student and a resident in training, you work over 90 hours a week, you didn’t have time for anything. It wasn’t until I moved to Boston as a fellow at Harvard and the name R.E.S.T.O.R.E came to me in the middle of the night. I got up immediately and wrote it in my book and then I started to make sense of it. R.E.S.T.O.R.E is an acronym that stands for “Restoring Emotional Stability Through Outstanding Reconstructive Efforts.”
For the first official R.E.S.T.O.R.E trip, I took a group of volunteers with me, that was in 2010. I took about seven people who graciously left the comfort of their homes and came with me to go and help my people in Ghana and that year was about breast reconstruction. That was the theme that the local plastic surgeons, Dr. P. Agbernoku, and his team chose that year. We also did the biggest breast reduction that I’ve ever heard of or seen. We did a breast reduction and the amount of tissue that we took off the breast was approximately 37 pounds in total.
Also some of the highlights: In 2009 we did the first breast reconstruction using a woman’s local tissue from the abdomen to reconstruct her breast. We had Dr. Nsiah-Asre, who at the time was the CEO of Konfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, and also happened to be a surgeon to help us. The patient was his nurse who had refused to have a mastectomy because she did not want to live without a breast, like most Ghanaian women at the time. And I remember vividly how the media showed up to document the procedure. The patient was very grateful. Unfortunately, she ended up passing away a year later after I came because of metastasis. In the last 13 years, we have done over 1,500 surgeries.
We have been to about seven different countries, including Ghana, Gabon, Nigeria, Guatemala Mexico, and Laos. We are now planning on going to Senegal in November-December this year. If you were to put a monetary figure on it in U.S. terms, we are talking about over $70 million worth of surgery, all free of charge.
But of course, this has been a team effort, without the team of selfless volunteers, including the leadership, constant devotion of doctors like Dr. Hoyt-Williams, who is now the chief of Plastic Surgery at Komfo Anoyke Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana, Dr. Mehmet Atila, who is the owner and director of Medical Inn in Dusseldorf Germany, Dr. Dembele from Mali, the late Dr. Edward Yamoah, may his soul rest in peace. Dawn Sutherland, director of international relations, Dr. Barry Freeman, my anesthetist, Oscar Garcia, my chief surgical tech and, of course, Ashley Erickson, one of our nurses… And I can go on and so many other names but without the help of all these people, none of this would have happened, without friends and family and people reading this right now who have graciously donated a dollar or two, none of this would have happened. However, I have personally put in over half a million dollars over the last 13 years.
This does not include the opportunity cost, which is the amount of money I have let go, because of all the time that I’ve spent not working and this exceeds $2.5 million. But it feels great to be able to put a smile on a person’s face, to be able to change the narrative in a community, and to be able to bring hope into a community that has been devastated because somebody does not look like “all of us.”
And I’m very thankful to God. Once again, I’m very thankful to all the volunteers over the years, the ones who donated the money, and ones who donated their time, and the ones who pray for us. Without none of these people, all the good work we have done wouldn’t have been possible. In 2019, we performed a gender reassignment surgery, the first of its kind in Central Africa.
There is a growing demand for cosmetic surgery in many African countries today. Do you think many Africans are embracing Western standards of beauty more and more? What are some of the major shifts driving this changing attitude towards plastic surgery in Africa, particularly amongst middle and upper middle class African women?
Great question. (Chuckles) Yes, plastic surgery has definitely been on the rise among Africans, not just the women, but this is a trend that has been picked up by watching western shows like, “The Kardashians,” like all these plastic surgery shows on TV and of course, reality shows. Now Africans have dispensable income, the middle class of Africa is expanding and with dispensable income people look to do things to make them look and feel better, be it shopping or having plastic surgery. But definitely, yes, it’s on the rise which is a good thing. But I don’t think they are embracing western standards and western beauty. So I think they are just looking to look a better version of themselves. Most African people who come in to do their noses. They just want to have a Black nose, a little bit more refined. They want to have big butts, which is not Western. Africans have always had bigger butts, it’s just that there are some bulges here and there they don’t like. African women, African men, Africans, in general, are embracing plastic surgery, just like the rest of the world because of pop culture, TV and social media.
— As many more Africans embrace plastic surgery, there is a proliferation of quacks in many African countries – especially in Nigeria. As a leading authority in complex reconstructive surgery, what are some of the most important questions one needs to ask before choosing a plastic surgeon?
— Mfonobong, you’re absolutely correct. There are a lot of unqualified people doing plastic surgery, not just in Africa, but all over the world. I don’t know the terrain when it comes to plastic surgery in Nigeria, but overall, anybody considering plastic surgery should make sure that their surgeon is properly trained in plastic surgery. Make sure that they have proper training and not just a weekend course or a month course.
I cannot speak for the training in Africa. Every country is different. And I can’t speak for the training in Nigeria. I can speak to the United States. In the United States, to be a plastic surgeon one has to obviously finish medical school, graduate among the top in their class because it’s a very competitive field, and then do a residency training of a minimum of five years, and then if they want to do complex surgeries, then they can do a fellowship.
But not anybody who has been properly trained and done the six years of training is eligible to sit for the American Board of Plastic Surgery, where you take a two-part exam and once you pass the written exam, you might get invited to take the oral part. Not everybody automatically gets to take the oral exam. You are invited after one year of practice, where you collect cases (as keeping track of surgeries you have done). You then send them all the surgeries that you have done. The board then selects five cases for you to put together, a book about the story behind the surgery, how the patient came to you, what they have, your thought process and before and after photos, and if there are any complications and how you resolved the complication.
So you prepare these five cases and you go to a place that the Board chooses every year. I took the exam in Phoenix, Arizona. The exam was three-days long. The first day, they give you a lecture about the exam, how 20 percent will fail. And then they collect all your books. So, usually on a Thursday, then on Friday, you start your exam. You have to defend those five cases that they pick. And I think in every case you have seven minutes to be able to go over the case and tell them why you did certain things. These so-called “peers” are not your peers, these are experienced plastic surgeons, just to make sure that you are safe. They make sure that safety is of utmost importance. Not only for those five cases that you have done yourself, but the board at the time also would question you, they call them “unknowns.” They give you 12 cases. So overall you have to answer 17 questions in front of a minimum of six plastic surgeons in three separate rooms. And those six people have to determine that are you’re safe, you’re knowledgeable, and make good decisions to go out in the world and practice plastic surgery. And that’s how you become board-certified in the United States.
So that’s what I always tell patients; make sure, you know, the doctor who’s doing your plastic surgery is board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery. Don’t get me wrong, we have a saying that you can teach a monkey how to operate. So some surgeons are good. You don’t have to go to chef school to be a great chef. And some people are gifted. Most of the people doing plastic surgery are not trained plastic surgeons. Maybe they can do plastic surgery, but the question that arises when there is a complication are these people suited to be able to handle the complication?
There will be complications, not everybody’s going to come out with perfect results. Some people can even die. Some people have died on the table. Of course not my table, but these things happen.
So when it comes to surgery, people should not take it lightly. Of course, nobody’s going to tell you the risk of doing surgery is death, but that’s an inherent risk that can happen. Always make sure they are board-certified by their respective plastic surgery board in their country.
Make sure that your surgeon has hospital privileges because a lot of hospitals if you are not properly trained in that field they will not give you privileges to do surgery at the hospital because of liability. So makes sure that your surgeon has hospital privileges to do the type of surgery they are planning to do at their office. Because if something happens, they should be able to take you to the hospital.So just be careful, make sure you choose your surgeon wisely. Make sure they are properly educated, well trained, and make sure that they have experience. And don’t go by what you read online all the time, make sure you do the research!
— You are establishing a pharmaceutical company in Ghana. Tell me more about it. How far have you gone with the project? What are your plans and what is the opportunity?
— Thank you for your question. The idea of the pharmaceutical plant came about as part of the vision I have for Africa. Over the years, because of my work with R.E.S.T.O.R.E, I have seen and witnessed a lot that has positioned me as a global health strategist, traveling across Africa and other developing nations.
I’ve always seen the need for capacity building in healthcare and healthcare infrastructure.
I’ve always known that it wasn’t because we didn’t have the money or the finances, we just lack the education of improving our own backyards, so to speak.
We, as Africans are some of the smartest people that God has created. Our leaders have failed us because of their own personal greed and tunnel vision. This pharmaceutical plant came about because of my cousin Yaw Antwi Obeng, who works in the pharmaceutical industry and witnessed some of the things that we all have witnessed: importation of fake drugs coming out pretty much everywhere – including some parts of China, Pakistan, and India. He came to me one day and told me of some of the health complications that people were having, even though they were taking their high blood pressure medication. So I never take credit for that. Yaw gets all the credit. I then decided to help out and I embraced it because it was part of my vision to be able to make Africans stand on their own two feet. Hopefully one day we can have pharmaceutical emancipation and not depend so much on the Western world to solve all our problems.
The project officially started in 2018 when we broke ground in Kumasi, Ghana. As a visionary, in the process of building, when my vision started getting bigger, we decided that if we are going to do this project, we should do it according to the World Health Organization, Good Manufacturing Practices standards. We completed the initial plan for which was a two-story building. We had almost completed the first floor. We went back to the Ghana FDA for inspection. They came back with their recommendations, we were in the process of rectifying it and then COVID-19 hit, this took us back to the drawing board and the vision became even bigger.
Now, we’re not just building a pharmaceutical plant, but also we are incorporating a vaccine centre, a world-class research laboratory to entice, and to bring scientists from all over the world to come and live in Ghana and work. We are now looking at Akwamu area, which is in the Eastern region of Ghana to build this first-class pharmaceutical plant. The chief has graciously agreed to give us 100 acres of land and, hopefully, we can get the support of the country, as well as of the president of the republic. Ghana’s Exim Bank has shown interest and just like everything I’ve done, we don’t give up until it comes to fruition, even though it started off very small amidst the doubts. This dream will also come to fruition by his grace, Amen.
I have now engaged an Indian company called Sushen Medicamentos. We are in the phase of raising money to make this dream a reality. The dream for pharmaceutical emancipation is closer than I ever dreamt of. “Drugs by Africans for Africans” is now within reach and this is all by his grace.
— You have successfully performed near impossible plastic surgeries and are currently the only African plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. Given the recurring issues of racial discrimination in America, have you ever had patients who second-guessed your capabilities because you were a Black African? Also, how can health systems help build a culture of anti-racism in America?
— That’s a very thought-provoking question. As you know racism exists, and it’s sad. And to be second-guessed is real and it’s not just white people – it’s all people. People of your own color will second guess you because you are Black. And I think it’s what we Black people do to ourselves that we don’t trust one another and respect each other’s talents and God given gifts.
And it’s really sad, but I think when the time comes, when people get to know your body of work, what you can and cannot do, it kind of changes a little bit, but there are still people out there that might not come to you because you are Black. And you know, that type of patient is not for me. I’ve always said that for me to do surgery on someone, you have to meet three criteria: They have to like me, I have to like them and they have to be able to afford me. Last but not the least, they have to have realistic expectations.
I wouldn’t say racism affected me. I think it probably has made me better because I know how much better I am than most of my white counterparts.It has been a blessing not to strive for more to distinguish myself, but yes, racism is real.So health system changing anti-racism in America is very tough, very tough. And I don’t think that will ever happen. No, not maybe in our generation. Now if you look at some of the great doctors in America, in the Western world, most of them are Africans. Lots of African ancestry, most of them are Black and there are a lot of distinguished Black surgeons in the world. We all have heard about Dr. Ben Carson of John Hopkins, who has turned into a politician. He faced racism as a very prominent neurosurgeon. But I think once you get to that point where you have distinguished yourself and you are the best in what you do, your colleagues, Black or white and patients of all colour will come to you. The nickname ‘The Surgeon’s Surgeon’ was a name that was given to me by a former colleague of mine, Dr. Vishal Kapoor. He said wow, you can do everything you are like the surgeon’s surgeon. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
So this is a long shot because prejudice is out there, I’ve been called a “n***a” before by a white patient when I was in training and I will never forget this patient. He came in after a car accident. This is when I was at the University of Texas Medical Branch, John Sealy Hospital. He was a “redneck” from Podunk, Texas. I attended to him took care of him and he said I don’t want this nigga to touch me.And I said, sir, I’m sorry. All you have is this nigga tonight. Do you want me to help you, or do you want to die? He shut his mouth. So it’s tough. You know, there are certain people who have been conditioned and it’s been ingrained in their head. They will always hate you because of the colour of your skin and no design of the healthcare system can change that.
— Health systems in Africa and most emerging economies are badly plagued by weak and bureaucratic public sectors. The already inadequate health systems in these regions, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, suffer the migration of health professionals. Where do you think these emerging economies, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, should begin to tackle this problem?
— We have most of the incredible amount of talents in Sub-Saharan Africa. Because of policies by our leaders and because of our misplaced priorities, healthcare has never been on the front burner.
Healthcare is not sexy. We put more emphasis on football and other insignificant things. Everybody values their profession. But personally, I do think that teachers and doctors, when you take up men of God, are the next in line but yet they are never valued.
I’ve always said that teachers should be some of the highest-paid professionals in the world and doctors should be well remunerated as well. We all have bills to pay. People expect doctors to work for free. In most economies it’s paid doctors who work for free because for anybody to selflessly do what we do, they should have a comfortable home and peace of mind knowing that they are not going to lack for money to feed their families. Because of a lack of proper remuneration and incentive, many physicians and healthcare professionals in Sub-Saharan Africa, seek jobs outside the continent and I don’t blame them. They have families to take care of and the same political leaders who have made little efforts at retaining some of the greatest minds on the continent are the same people who go overseas to see the same doctors or the same people from the continent who are charging them 10 times the amount they would have been charged if they were in the continent. Until our leaders start to think and make policies and put emphasis on healthcare, this brain drain will never stop because everybody’s looking for opportunities and seeking places where they can flourish and thrive economically and professionally.
— What does beauty look like, according to a plastic surgeon?
— Chuckles) Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. We are all made beautifully in the image of God. Less is always more.
— In the end, what will you want your legacy to be?
— When I leave this world to join my Heavenly Father, I want the world to know that this is a man who came to this world, gave his best. Never took a no for an answer, persevered and made a difference in people’s lives by improving healthcare, whether it be through the pharmaceutical plant, whether that being through R.E.S.T.O.R.E, the Foundation for Reconstructive Surgery, and ultimately whether building hospitals to bolster the healthcare sector in developing countries, then I have done my job on this earth, in this lifetime.
Thank you very much.