Behind the Mask: Ukachi Emeruwa, MD, MPH
#BehindtheMask is a series that spotlights the faculty, staff, and trainees in Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Today, meet Maternal-Fetal Medicine fellow Dr. Ukachi Emeruwa.
Women’s health can be a highly complex field to navigate. Obstetrics and gynecology spans the patient’s entire lifespan, from adolescence through pregnancy and childbirth through menopause. Patients face sometimes high barriers to accessing care, from financial challenges to lack of knowledge and education to societal factors that make some of the topics in women’s health difficult or uncomfortable to discuss.
Faced with a specialty that presents so many complications, Ukachi Emeruwa, MD, MPH has a simple philosophy.
“At the core of it, it’s about remembering that everybody is a human being,” Emeruwa said. “Everybody is a human being with human emotions, human struggles, and everybody can teach you something. It’s not just the science and the biology and the textbooks, it’s human beings who are coming to you with human issues, and looking for somebody to confide and trust in.”
For Emeruwa, a third-year Maternal-Fetal Medicine fellow in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, her philosophy of care was formed at a young age by seeing the way her father, an obstetrician-gynecologist himself, touched the lives of his patients. Visiting the grocery store with her parents, they were approached by a former patient who recognized her father as the physician who had delivered her son 15 years ago.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, 15 years later and he’s still somebody who is a part of one of the most special moments of their lives,’” Emeruwa said. “The nature of the relationship between an Ob/Gyn and their patients is really what transformed the idea of science and what it could mean to me.”
Coming from a “medicine family,” with a physician father, scientist mother, and two siblings who are also physicians, Emeruwa has always been immersed in the science side of medicine. The challenge she most embraces as a doctor is sharing the knowledge from her extensive training with her patients in order to empower them to make decisions that are right for them, building a relationship of mutual trust and respect.
“When I speak with a patient about a medical issue, I first have to understand where they’re coming from and what their priorities are,” Emeruwa said. “I want to not only tell people about the condition or the treatments, but take it back a step, so they understand what I understand, and use that knowledge to make decisions that are right for them. I don’t always agree with patients – I push them, I challenge them, and they challenge me, but when they feel like they can ask me or talk to me about anything, that’s the highest compliment I can receive.”
Emeruwa’s work to broaden people’s understanding of women’s health and wellness goes beyond her day-to-day work as a physician. She also runs a popular IGTV channel on Instagram, where she offers information and guidance on a variety of topics related to women’s health, covering everything from menstrual periods, childbirth, fibroids, contraceptive options, to Black maternal mortality.
Emeruwa began the series at a friend’s prompting who had asked her for guidance on the COVID-19 vaccines. Her friend began sending others with similar questions to Emeruwa, making her appreciate that there would be a great value in sharing her knowledge with a larger audience. When she posted her first videos, she realized she could use this platform to more broadly tackle women’s health topics and help dispel some of the stigma and provide much-needed information.
“The goal was to help people understand the science the way that I understand the science, and be equipped with the tools to make decisions and have more informed conversations with their doctors,” Emeruwa said. “Many people feel like they have no forum to ask questions or try to understand things. It’s really quite amazing how little we teach people about the female body, and about pregnancy and childbirth.”
Medical education is highly solution-oriented – throughout their training, students are presented with medical issues and problems and expected to solve them. Good outcomes are the physician’s goal – but what are the patients’ goals?
“I was talking to a group of residents. I asked them, ‘What do we think a patient’s goals are when they come in for delivery of their baby?’ Okay, they want a healthy and live baby. What else?” Emeruwa said. “Do you think patients care if they have a vaginal delivery? They do care – they have a birth experience in their head, and it might not involve surgery. You’re not just here to tell patients exactly what they need to do – you’re here to help them achieve the vision that they see. What will bring them wellness, not just health? What will bring them happiness and joy?”
It’s the human aspect of medicine, for Emeruwa, that makes it come alive.
“As clinicians, we operate very objectively,” Emeruwa said. “We operate on the science of it, but it’s the subjective piece that makes it an art.”