A voice for women in medicine

When Dr. Stephanie Ibekwe’s mother, Sarah, came home from her nursing job, she would tell her daughter stories about her patients and the conversations she had with them.

“Nursing is pretty stressful, but my mom had an amazing way of handling things,” she said. “My mom really loved to build relationships with her patients, and I’ve taken that on as a physician.”

Now, as an anesthesiologist and assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston, Ibekwe has short but meaningful conversations with patients before they go into surgery. She is talking with other doctors as an ambassador for the Harvard Medical School women’s leadership course, Invest In Her campaign, which encourages women to recruit and retain women into careers in the medical field and support their re-entry if they have left the profession.

“It has come full circle,” Ibekwe said, noting how she inherited her mother’s conversational style with patients.

Ibekwe obtained her bachelor’s degree in biology at Baylor University before she came to The Stephanie IbekweUniversity of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth to pursue her master’s in biomedical sciences. She wanted to learn more about medical school before she entered it — and HSC’s program offered classes in public health, physics and anatomy that was a perfect fit for her. She noted she was daunted by taking a statistics course, but the professor’s patience and kindness made it easier for her, just as HSC helped her get ready for medical school.

“They helped prepare me for the next step I felt I wasn’t quite ready for,” she said.

She earned her Master’s of Public Health degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and her medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio — to the pride of her parents, who immigrated from Nigeria in the 1970s.

“When I received my white coat, my dad gave me a hug and said, ‘We did it,’” she said. “I feel proud and honored I was able to have that moment with my parents.”

After working as a surgical intern at WellStar Atlanta Medical Center, she completed her anesthesiology residency at Emory University in Atlanta and later completed an adult cardiothoracic fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Anesthesiology allows her to work with physiology in real-time.

“I get to be with patients in the most difficult time of their lives,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to be there taking care of your body, and I will make sure you’re safe.’ A lot of people don’t remember their anesthesiologist. I’m OK with that. I get my joy out of those short, intense relationships with my patients.”

With the Invest in Her campaign, sponsored by the American Medical Women’s Association and the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine, she works with fellow female medical professionals and gives them the tools they need to succeed in their careers.

“We’re there to build each other up,” she said. “We support each other and we’re there for each other.”

And just as with her mother’s patients and with her own patients, a conversation can make a difference. She remembers when she was pregnant in 2016 while she was in her residency at Emory University. Her supervising physician, Dr. Bola Faloye, gave her advice she never forgot.

“I just remember her saying that it was not going to be easy, but she would be there to support me,” she said.

They still text each other today. So, what would Ibekwe tell aspiring doctors? First, set a small goal each day.

“I would say persevere,” she said. “It may seem daunting. It probably seems like a huge task, but keep taking small steps toward your goal, and you will get there.”

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