ENYI OKEREKE, 1954 - 2008
"Death, be not proud . . .
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery."
from "Sonnet #10"
by John Donne, 1572 - 1631
English Metaphysical Poet
I had the occasion to meet Dr. Enyi Okereke in Philadelphia back in 2000, when I developed a mysterious persistent pain in my left ankle. Had I been skiing, fallen, worn strange shoes, twisted my ankle in any way? No. I recollected nothing of the sort. After some analysis of my case, Dr. Okereke cured me with a couple of shots of cortisone. I spent the next 24 hours with an ankle swollen larger and aching more than ever before, but as the swelling subsided, so did the pain, and it has stayed away for a decade. So, in my mind, Dr. Okereke was a miracle worker, and one of the kindest, funniest physicians I have ever had the privilege to meet.
On the afternoon of my first scheduled appointment with him, I had hoped to squeeze in a visit on short notice before picking my children up from school. The waiting room was crowded, and an hour passed. All the doctors were running behind, and as the time drew near for me to fetch the boys, I realized that both I and the scheduling desk had been much too optimistic. I let the receptionist know that I would have to leave without keeping my appointment, and we rescheduled for another day, first thing in the morning. When that morning arrived, the waiting room was quiet, and I was called to Dr. Okereke's office at the appointed time.
Glancing over my "new patient" chart, Dr. Okereke observed the notation that I had departed the previous week without seeing him. "Yes," I replied, "the appointments were getting all backed up and I couldn't wait any longer."
"Oh dear, he asked, "was I having a bad day?"
I laughed, and said, "Apparently you were!"
I was so warmed by his humor, and charmed by his joke of asking me how his day had been going.
I also joked with him about the similarity of our last names:
Oker - e - ke
Mine was Germanic, his Nigerian, but maybe somewhere back in the mists of linguistic history, they were derived from the same root word. [I have the same curiosity about the surnames of several other friends whose families hail from various points around the globe, yet our names are all so similar: Carrigan / Carillo / Annecharico. But that's another story!]
As for my ankle, a number of times during the course of my treatment, I received questionnaires from insurance companies asking if I had injured myself on someone else's property, fallen on their driveway, tripped on their stairs. Was there someone to blame? Someone to sue for my aches and pains? But such was not the case. I could think of no external event, no evident cause for this effect.
Dr. Okereke had a different idea. His diagnosis: insidious trauma. Remember all those childhood bicycle accidents? It's true, I was not a natural when it came to keeping my balance! Well, the scabs and scars might have disappeared long ago, but deep inside each cell, the memory remained. Thanks to Dr. Okereke, I gained a new respect for my body's capacity to remember. In a related observation, Madeleine L'Engle points out in A Wrinkle in Time: "Sometimes we can't know what spiritual damage it [trauma] leaves even when physical recovery is complete" (189; see also my previous post: "Grief & Relief").
A year or so after my ankle crisis, my husband was called for jury duty. He was dismissed after the first round of questions when all M. D.s and Ph. D.s were asked to identify themselves and be excused. Apparently, the case was a lawsuit, a patient not satisfied with the outcome of his orthopedic surgery. "A doctor named Okereke," Gerry informed me, not recalling the name from my appointments the previous year. "What!" I was astonished. How dare anyone sue Dr. Okereke. I could not abide hearing a word spoken against him!
Our paths crossed for only an hour or so, but he made a lasting impression on me. Over the years, I've told my Dr. Okereke stories many times -- his sense of humor over the "bad day"; the oddly coincidental jury duty conflict; the intriguing concept of "insidious trauma" that I learned from him (applicable in so many psychosomatic ways); and my hunch that our names are somehow etymologically connected. This last topic came up in conversation just the other day, and Gerry volunteered to do some googling for me.
Sore dismayed is perhaps the only way to describe how I felt when Gerry informed me that sadly, the first few citations to appear on his web search were Dr. Okereke's obituary and numerous eulogies in his honor. No! Vibrant Dr. Okereke not here on earth with us? What insidious trauma could have laid him low, so unfairly, so many years before his time? How could this be possible when he seemed so invincible? Yet in a way he remains so. You have only to look at the many loving words delivered on his behalf to see that I was not alone in my estimation of this kind and humorous and helpful man. Invincible!
FRIENDS OF ENYI
ENYI MD FOUNDATION
"I am not resigned
to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be,
for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. . . .
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."
from "Dirge Without Music"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892 - 1950
American Lyrical Poet