Side by Side Through Life: Drs. Ezinne and Ukachi Emeruwa

Though opposites in many ways, the Emeruwa sisters — and NewYork-Presbyterian physicians and fellows — share a mission to care for mothers and babies in underserved communities.

Dr. Ezinne Emeruwa (left) and Dr. Ukachi Emeruwa are fellows at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Dr. Ezinne Emeruwa (left) and Dr. Ukachi Emeruwa are fellows at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

On a recent shift, Dr. Ezinne Emeruwa was working in the pediatric critical care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, checking on children who had recently undergone heart surgery and others with heart conditions in the emergency room.

One floor above, her sister, Dr. Ukachi Emeruwa, an OB-GYN, was working in the maternity ward, where she delivered two babies and performed a cesarean section on a mother whose newborn had a complex heart complication that later needed surgery.

Though Ezinne and Ukachi, or “Uk” for short, have chosen different medical paths in caring for mothers and children, they have journeyed together throughout their lives and careers.

Uk (left) and Ezinne at their brother’s birthday party in 1992.

In high school, Uk was a stellar student who was admittedly “a procrastinator waiting until the last minute,” while Ezinne excelled and skipped two grades so that both sisters attended Princeton University for undergrad as part of the same class. The duo — roommates — then moved on to Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons for medical school, where they were in the dance and basketball clubs together (along with their brother). They diverged to opposite coasts for their residency programs — Ezinne trained at Stanford Medicine for pediatrics, and Uk trained at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Integrated Residency Program in OB-GYN.

But soon they were reunited when both were accepted for fellowships at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia, where Ezinne is a pediatric cardiology fellow and Uk is a maternal-fetal medicine fellow who specializes in high-risk pregnancies.

“We’re so close, and we’ve spent so much of our life together,” says Ezinne, who often waits for Uk at the end of her shift so they can walk home together to their apartment in Harlem. “We understand each other so well.”

“Like an old married couple”

While their bond is strong, the Emeruwa sisters describe themselves as opposites. Ezinne, 31, favors curling up with a book and quiet days alone. Uk, 32, is a fan of reality TV and going out with friends. “She’s the classic extrovert, and I’m the classic introvert,” Ezinne says.

In April 2020, their brother Obi (center) came from California to help treat COVID-19 patients at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

On lazy weekends, when they take Elmo, their 70-pound half-husky, on a long walk in the park, “Uk starts talking and it’s a stream of consciousness; every thought that comes into her mind, I hear. I won’t say a word,” Ezinne says. “She’s fine and I’m fine. That works for us. In some ways, we’re like an old married couple.”

Despite their distinct differences, they share a deep commitment to caring for women and babies, especially in Nigeria, where their parents were born and raised. Ezinne has a special interest in global health and wants to expand pediatric cardiology and critical care services in Nigeria. Uk plans to work in underserved communities in the U.S. and abroad, designing and implementing programs, with a focus on reducing health disparities and the high maternal death rates in Black women during pregnancy and childbirth.

A family affair

Their dedication to healthcare was fostered when they were children growing up in Riverside, California, alongside their older brother Obi, 34, who is a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Health. Their parents came to the U.S., where they met, to pursue degrees; their mother, Magdalen, earned a master’s in chemical engineering, and their father, Iheanacho, graduated from Howard University College of Medicine and eventually became an OB-GYN.

“We’re the kids of scientists, and we didn’t steer from that at all,” Uk says. “It’s how we were groomed.”

While Magdalen ultimately decided to stay home to raise their family (“We were really fortunate to be supported by highly educated parents who could help with calculus homework!” says Uk), the passion Iheanacho brought to his OB-GYN practice had a big impact on all three Emeruwa siblings.

“Our dad absolutely loves what he does and always has,” says Ezinne. “Many people think of OBs as being tired and drained, getting up all hours of the night to deliver babies, but he very much enjoys it.”

The Emeruwa family at Ezinne and Uk’s medical school graduation from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2015.

Early on, Ezinne and Uk witnessed their dad in action when their parents established a nonprofit organization that provides healthcare in Nigeria. After becoming physicians themselves, the three siblings and their parents established the African Primary Healthcare Foundation, which provides educational and medical services in their parents’ hometowns and underserved communities throughout Africa. “[Our parents] were doing medical missions going back to Nigeria, providing care and medications,” says Uk. “We used to tag along when we were little, but now that we’re in medicine, we all got to provide care in our dad’s village.” Uk recalls performing one fibroid removal surgery after another in the operating room alongside her father in Ovim, the village where he grew up. “It was an awesome, incredible experience,” she says.

In 2018, Ezinne and Uk were surprised to learn that they had both been accepted into fellowships at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia, and later they were grateful that they had each other during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was a blessing in disguise to have each other around,” Uk says. “If we’re not able to leave the house, at least I’m locked up with family.” (Obi came from California to volunteer in the ICUs at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where he had been a chief resident in internal medicine, during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.)

When their fellowship ends in 2022, Uk and Ezinne don’t know where they will land next, but they have accepted that they’ll likely end up in different places. Whether they live nearby or far apart, the sisters’ bond is unbreakable. “No matter where we go,” says Ezinne, “she’ll always be my sister and best friend.”

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