‘Simply meant to be’: Resident feels at home in emergency department

Posted on October 21, 2021 by Lindsay Lyle
Lindsay Lyle

Elizabeth Ekpo, M.D., a third-year emergency medicine resident and first-generation Nigerian-American, practices traditional Nigerian dancing. Download larger image

Elizabeth Ekpo, M.D.Elizabeth Ekpo, M.D., is pleased to have found her place as a resident at USA Health, thriving in the challenging and unpredictable environment of the emergency department.

A first-generation Nigerian-American, Ekpo is the youngest sibling of three female doctors – the oldest a family physician, the middle a dermatologist, and she a soon-to-be board-certified emergency medicine physician.  Their late father, who was a professor in Nigeria, immigrated to the United States with hopes of returning to his home country eventually. He died of a stroke before he could fulfill his dream, but his legacy lives on in his three daughters. 

“He motivated my sisters and I to reach our fullest potential because he wasn’t given the same opportunities,” said Ekpo, now in her third year of residency training in emergency medicine. With a passion for global health, she and her sisters one day plan to open a clinic in her parents’ hometown in Nigeria.

Ekpo was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, and later moved to Garland, Texas. Growing up in the Great Plains, she is used to standing out.

“I had a great childhood, but I often occupied spaces where I was the only person of my race and/or gender,” she said. "My father always told me that 'as a Black woman, you will have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.' It was a quote that often bothered me, but ultimately prepared me for the realities of the world. The medical fields have made great strides since the 1950s, but diversity and gender inclusion is still a work in progress.”

After earning her medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Ekpo pursued a residency in orthopaedic surgery – a specialty in which women make up 6.5 percent of the field and Black women even less.

Although Ekpo enjoyed the fast pace and procedure-based approach of orthopaedic surgery, she felt unfulfilled halfway through her intern year. “It was not until I rotated in the emergency department that everything clicked!” she said. “I had a truly amazing experience during my month-long rotation. It was then that I made the decision to switch to emergency medicine.”

There was only one problem: The Electronic Residency Application Service final rank order list for programs and applicants was due in two weeks.

“This deadline essentially marked the end of the residency application cycle and solidified the careers of thousands of graduating medical students,” she said. “Unless there was a divine intervention, my chances of successfully matching into emergency medicine were slim to none.”

While browsing Facebook, Ekpo saw a post listing residency and fellowship programs that were newly accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Only two programs in emergency medicine were listed, and USA Health was one of them.

“I knew I had nothing to lose,” she said. “I immediately contacted the program coordinators, and USA offered me an interview.”

Ekpo aced her interview and matched in emergency medicine at USA Health – a series of events that were “simply meant to be,” she said. “I completed my orthopaedic residency on a Friday, drove almost 11 hours to Mobile, Ala., and started my EM residency on a Monday.”

In July 2019, Ekpo joined USA Health as the only woman in the inaugural emergency medicine residency class. Since then, several other female physicians have entered the young residency program.

“In some ways, my co-residents and I pioneered the program. It was a lot of trial and error, but the growing pains were expected,” she said. “We have a great working relationship with all the other specialties. We rotate through all the departments, and it’s truly an enriching experience.”

Ekpo’s class was the first to work in the brand-new Fanny Meisler Trauma Center and emergency department at University Hospital. In addition to the area’s only Level I trauma center, emergency medicine residents see patients at Children’s & Women’s Hospital and other USA Health facilities. As a senior resident, Ekpo also oversees medical students and interns.

“We see every complaint imaginable, from gynecology to trauma to STEMIs (serious heart attacks) and strokes. Whatever comes through the door, we have to be prepared,” she said. “I enjoy patient interactions and knowing that they feel better after they leave our emergency department.”

Along with patient care, residents are required to complete a research project and a quality improvement project. Ekpo worked on the sickle cell pain pathway algorithm and pediatric complaint pathways including bronchiolitis and diabetic ketoacidosis. She also wrote an interesting case report that she hopes to publish soon.

Staying true to her Nigerian heritage, Ekpo practices traditional Nigerian dancing and has performed at weddings, graduations and other events. She also enjoys CrossFit, traveling, learning new languages, participating in Tough Mudder challenges, and volunteering with a local animal shelter.

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