Indefatigable doyenne of public health

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Dr Ngozi Ogbunamiri Ezike

When, in January 2019, Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, USA, appointed Dr Ngozi Ogbunamiri Ezike as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), history was made and a glass ceiling was shattered. By that appointment, she became the first black woman and only second female to head the nearly 150-year-old agency.

However, neither Ezike nor any of those who recommended her for the eminent role had an inkling of what fate actually had in store for her or the immensity of the impact she would be making on the highly populous and racially diverse state. Barely a year after her assumption of office, COVID-19 struck and, as its deadly rampage spread, the over 12 million residents of Illinois had their eyes on the new public health director to keep them safe.

The novelty and suddenness of the outbreak threw Ezike – just like many medical experts globally – into a frenzy of strategic measures to manage the situation. As she would later recall, “We were flying the plane as we were building it. I think the public saw firsthand how science evolved… In March, April and May, I was at the governor’s office every single day, seven days a week, until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. It was pretty intense. I wasn’t traveling as much around the state, but it was just high-stakes, high-pressure with new information coming out every second. It was evolving every hour.”

Ezike soon became a household name throughout Illinois, as her image and voice daily beamed on television and radio sets, computers and mobile devices. Alongside the governor, she constantly updated the residents on both the toll exacted by the coronavirus and the safety measures needed to fight the disease. Within the pandemic period alone, she participated in over 200 press conferences, providing information, insights and advice, as well as attending to the barrage of questions from the media.

Aside from her expertise and empathy, one major factor that boosted the effectiveness of Ezike’s messages and connected her better with Illinoisans is her multilingual proficiency. She is not only fluent in Igbo, the native language of both her parents, but also English, Spanish, French and Swahili. With Latinos being the second largest population in Illinois, Ezike ensured to translate her COVID-19 updates into Spanish at every single news conference, an effort that ultimately paid off.

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Following a hard-fought battle to slow the spread of the virus, curb the mortality rate, equitably distribute vaccines and effectively manage threats from anti-lockdown protesters, Ezike successfully guided Illinois through the worst pandemic in its history. And she did so in a gallant manner, with the state recording one of the lowest mortality rates in the country.

 

Fitting farewell

After more than three years of meritorious service and numerous accomplishments in Illinois, the public health champion decided to step down from her role to explore new career frontiers. The entire state reacted with touching gratitude and encomiums for a job well done. Governor Pritzker was particularly expressive in his heroic farewell message to her.

He said: “Dr Ngozi Ezike has led the Illinois Department of Public Health for over three years – her tenure defined not only by her ability to provide the latest expertise and data, but also her empathy and compassion – becoming a beacon of stability for millions during a time of tremendous uncertainty. No number of sleepless nights and endless days could wear down her commitment to think first and foremost of Illinois’ most vulnerable.

“Her departure is a change I am loathe to accept, but I have utmost faith that Dr Ezike’s next journey will also bring more good to the world – as has been the hallmark of every step of her career. She will go down in the Illinois history books as a woman who saved lives and changed our state for the better.”

 

Further feats

Ezike is a nationally recognised public health and healthcare leader. In addition to her pandemic exploits, she is also acclaimed for working to promote health equity, particularly within communities of need. Her tenure at IDPH was marked by her commitment to addressing diverse public health issues, including obesity, diabetes, and breastfeeding.

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After taking a brief break to spend time with her family, Ezike returned to the limelight in June 2022 with another historic appointment. She became president and CEO of Sinai Chicago, the largest private health system in the state of Illinois, with over 3,500 employees. According to the management of the health system, “Dr Ezike was chosen after a nationwide selection process with a national search firm that took place over the last few months.”

Sinai Chicago is a network of four hospitals, 17 community clinics, one community institute, and one nationally recognised research institute. Again, Ezike is the first black woman to lead the prestigious health system in its over 100-year history.

 

Background and career path

Ezike was born in the early 70s, in Los Angeles, California, to Nigerian parents. Her career trajectory was decided when, at just seven months of age, she started to walk and the family paediatrician remarked that it was an indication of intelligence and athleticism. According to her, since being a medical practitioner was seen as a sign of intelligence, her father resolved that she would become the first doctor in either of her parents’ families.

Ezike graduated with honours from Harvard College with a concentration in Chemistry (1994) before earning her medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine (1999). She completed her internship and residency at Rush University Medical Centre, in Chicago. She also has honorary doctorates from Southern Illinois University, Rosalind Franklin University, Dominican University, as well as Knox College, all in Illinois.

Ezike is a diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Paediatrics. Before joining the Illinois Department of Public Health and Sinai Chicago, she had worked for more than 15 years at the Cook County (Illinois) Department of Public Health, promoting the organisation’s mission of delivering integrated health services to patients with dignity and respect, regardless of their ability to pay. She equally delivered inpatient care at Stroger Hospital, as well as primary and preventive care in community and school-based clinics.

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An expert in healthcare within juvenile detention and justice systems, Ezike also served as medical director at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Centre. It is the largest single-site juvenile detention facility in the US. She was instrumental in creating and implementing the facility’s health policies as the first step of many for coming out of federal receivership and achieving national accreditation. She is also a national policy advisor on juvenile correctional health topics and has presented at numerous local and national conferences for medical professionals and youth audiences.

 

Awards and recognitions

Dr Ezike has received numerous awards and accolades for her contributions to public health and her efforts in improving health services for vulnerable populations. In 2020, Chicago Magazine named her “Chicagoan of the Year”, for her “calm and reassuring presence” during the pandemic. That same 2020, the Chicago Urban League gave her the Lester H. McKeever, Jr. Individual Service Award for her commitment to equity and public health. Also, in 2020, the Community Behavioural Healthcare Association of Illinois honoured her with the “Exceptional Leadership and Impact Award”. She also received the 2020 Excellence in Public Service Award from the Motorola Solutions Foundation, as well as the Health Innovator Award from Erie Family Health Centre.

In 2021, Rockford University, Illinois, presented her with the 39th Jane Addams Medal, for her admirable service to Illinois during COVID-19. Also in 2021, the University of St Francis, in Illinois, gave her the Sister Clare of Assisi Award, which recognises women of vision who have transformed the world in their time and whose vision allowed the light within them to make it easier for others to know or find the way. In 2022, USA Today announced her as the inaugural Illinois Woman of the Year honoree. In the same 2022, Modern Healthcare magazine named her among “Top 25 Diversity Leaders in Healthcare”.

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