On National Siblings Day (April 10), Chinyere Okpaleke, MD, posted online a photo of herself and five of her six siblings, all of whom are Black medical professionals. “Dr Chi,” as her patients call her, stood with her family, all decked out in blue scrubs, white coats, and big, joyful smiles. She posted it on LinkedIn, a platform she says she rarely uses. Two of her hashtags summed up the message she was hoping to send: #TheWhiteCoatFamily and #AfricanExcellence.
When she logged back in a few days later, she was stunned. The photo had been viewed millions of times and had been liked more than 200,000 times. More than 7000 people commented in support. Good Morning America and The Today Show reached out, asking for interviews.
“I was very confused, but I was also excited to see that feedback ― it was heartwarming,” said Chinyere, 35, who goes by “Chi Chi” and is a family medicine hospitalist in Houston, Texas. “I was happy that people resonated with the message I was sending: It wasn’t just a picture, it was this presentation of Black excellence, and more people should see more of it.”
As impressive as the picture was, it didn’t capture the full extent of the Okpaleke family’s achievements. Their father, Andrew Okpaleke, MD, is a retired internal medicine physician. Their mother, Celina, is a physician assistant who started her own home healthcare business. Their sixth sibling, Lillian Okpaleke, 39, has a dual MD-PharmD. “She’s the go-getter of the family,” Chinyere said with a laugh.
The entire Okpaleke family are medical professionals. From left to right: Okway Okpalke, MD, Chinelo Okpalke, PA, Nkiru Osefo, MD, Ifeoma Okpalke, NP, Queenate Okpalke, NP, and Chinyere Okpaleke, MD. Their father, Andrew Okpaleke, MD, and mother, Celina Okpaleke, PA, are pictured in front. Sister Lillian Okpaleke, MD, PharmD, is not pictured.
The fact that Black people are underrepresented in medicine, particularly as doctors, is well documented. Just 5% of physicians in the United States identify as Black, whereas 13.4% of the US population identifies as Black. Experts say this contributes to problems across the healthcare spectrum, including disparities in outcomes for Black people in numerous conditions. Chinyere said that gap is a big part of why she posted the photo. She wanted people to see her family as an example of Black success in medicine.
The Importance of Visible Black Doctors
Andrew and Celina immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in 1980 so that Andrew could go to medical school. Celina worked odd jobs to help make ends meet while he went to school and worked his way through his residency. They would go on to have seven children. The first was born in 1981, the last in 1993.
When the youngest, Chinelo, 27, was less than a year old, Celina was accepted to the University of Florida, where she earned her physician assistant degree. In 1997, she opened a home healthcare agency. That business has been successfully operating in Florida for more than 20 years.
The Okpalekes helped their children to believe that a career in medicine was possible, even if most of the doctors they saw growing up did not look like them, Chinyere said. “My father had friends within the medical field who were of color that I saw…and that helped,” she said. “But my primary care physician ― no. It was rare to see a doctor of color.”
As an undergraduate, advisors counseled Chinyere against pursuing medical school. “I was never sure if that was because they didn’t think I could do it or they didn’t think Black doctors existed,” she said. “People need to see more of us to know that this is something that is achievable.”
Okway, 31, the only brother in the family and a doctor in the Tampa, Florida, area, said that he thinks about his own path to medical school when he sees the picture. “I don’t remember growing up seeing many Black doctors besides the ones that my family knew,” he said. “If I had never seen them, I would probably have never even known that this is possible for me. And knowing that it was possible helped me push through the darkest and hardest days of med school. It made me know that I was not an outsider, no matter how much imposter syndrome I felt.”
Okway officially knew the photo was a big deal when a patient brought it in to an appointment. “They were, like, ‘Hey, is this your family? This is awesome. I printed it and put it on my fridge, and told my kids, look, this is possible for you,’ ” he said.
To hear her children tell it, Celina is the backbone of the family. The Okpalekes have a family group texting session. Every morning, Celina shares a message of prayer and support. “If we don’t have it, we’re, like, ‘Hey, where’s our morning text?’ ” Okway said. “She sends it every single day, and it’s like a cup of coffee ― you need that little jolt. She’s kind of our cup of coffee in the morning to give us that energy for the day.”
As the children grew up, it became clear that all were talented in math and science. Chinyere was the first to go to medical school. She worked through an undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences at the University of South Florida (USF) while also playing on the university’s basketball team. She went on to earn a master’s at USF and then attended medical school at Ross University School of Medicine, in Miramar, Florida.
Meanwhile, her younger siblings were making similar career decisions. Lillian decided to become a pharmacist. In high school, Okway also thought he might like to be a pharmacist, so he worked as a pharmacy technician. As he learned more about the work, he realized he wanted to work with patients more closely. “I liked seeing patients get better,” he says. “And that’s why I switched over to primary care, because I was going to be the first-line person to prevent things from getting worse.”
The family’s youngest sibling, Chinelo, remembers sitting around the table with her sisters and brother working on her homework. Her siblings helped, walking her through problems and testing her on concepts. “My sister was going to medical school, and my brother was going to med school, and my sisters were going to get their NPs, and everyone was just progressing, and I was, like, ‘OK, I’m just trying to get my bachelors,’ ” Chinelo said, laughing. To be fair, she had long known she wanted to pursue a career in medicine. In high school, she became a licensed practical nurse and helped with their mother’s business.
Chinelo was in her senior year of college when she read about Bennet Omalu, MBBS, MPH, a pathologist who discovered abnormalities in the brain of a football player while performing an autopsy. “I was blown away that you could find this out from an autopsy, and I just felt like I had to get into this field,” she said.
She talked with a pathologist at her sister’s hospital, then applied to a pathology assistant program in Chicago. About a year ago, she started working in a laboratory in Tampa.
When her sister sent a message to the family group text about the viral photo, Chinelo was surprised.
“When we all accomplished what we accomplished, we never really thought about it ― it was just something that we did,” she said. “And as humbled as I am by the response to that photo, it mostly gives me motivation to help others achieve what they want to achieve.”
Getting Through the Pandemic Together
The last year has been professionally fulfilling for Chinelo and for the rest of the Okpaleke family, but it has also been very difficult. Because every family member works in medicine, many were often on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. The family group text, generally filled with messages of support, turned to conversations about how to protect themselves, especially their parents.
“I still live at home with my parents, and I was still going to work,” Chinelo said. “Supplies were getting low ― a lot of the times, the first people to get hit with lack of supplies are people who aren’t noticed. So being in a lab, a lot of people didn’t focus on making sure we had the proper PPE ― and we ended up using the same mask multiple days in a row and just trying to sanitize it in between.” Her siblings sent messages of caution. “They were really getting on me, because I’m coming home to the parents.”
Another sister, Ify, 38, is a physician assistant in New York City. She works with HIV patients, who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID. The news reports from New York terrified the rest of the family. When Ify got sick with COVID, the family ― all of whom were hundreds of miles away ― felt helpless. She recovered and is doing well, her siblings said.
Now that more and more people are getting vaccinated, the Okpalekes are thinking about the future, including one very big addition: Okway and his wife, who is also a doctor, are expecting their first child.
Okway says he doesn’t want his child to feel pressure to join the family’s chosen profession. He said he never felt pressured to pursue a career in medicine ― if anything, the opposite.
“My dad showed us how hard it can be, that this isn’t the easiest road, and he told us, on some of his hardest days, ‘If this is not what you want, don’t do it. Do it only if you truly want to,’ ” Okway said. “We want our kid to grow up knowing that whatever they choose to do, we’re going to support them,” he said. “And we’re going to help them achieve whatever they choose.”
Laura Arenschield is a Columbus, Ohio–based, award-winning reporter for MDedge who has been writing about science and health for more than a decade.