When Nnaemezie “Nnanna” Ezeife was a teenager growing up in Nigeria, his mother went out for a jog one morning. She worked as a nutritionist and was trying to get healthier by incorporating more exercise into her life. But a car hit someone in front of her and then hit her too as she was trying to get out of the way. After extensive physical therapy, she was still in a lot of pain but was able to walk again, first with a cane and then with a brace. “The therapists did the best they could,” he remembers. “But it was a bad injury, and her body just couldn’t get back to 100%.”
Ezeife had already been thinking about pursuing medicine as a career, but his mother’s experience made him realize he also wanted to help people with disabilities make fuller recoveries. When he was ready for college, he applied and was accepted at the University of Illinois Chicago, where he had a sister living nearby. Even though he grew up in Nigeria’s bustling capital of Abuja, Ezeife experienced culture shock coming to a big metropolis like Chicago. “You just adapt in a very short time,” he says. At least, language wasn’t an issue: English is the lingua franca of Nigeria. Though he was far from home, he also had other relatives living in the U.S., including an uncle in New Jersey who was a physician and had actually delivered him as a baby.
I’ve gotten much more from this than I initially wanted.Nnaemezie “Nnanna” Ezeife
After graduating magna cum laude in 2019, Ezeife took a break from academics to gain work experience that would help him get into medical school and broaden his research knowledge. He was hired as a research assistant at the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in 2020 where he now works on multiple projects. One of his duties is to reach out to people at the rehabilitation hospital who have spinal cord injuries and try to recruit them as participants in a long-term outcomes study known as the Midwest Regional Spinal Cord Injury Care System (MRSCICS). He approaches the patients when they are still coming to grips with their injuries and new limitations. “The first thing in my mind is being aware of the significant life change the person just had,” he says. “You have to have sympathy and compassion. You know the research study has its benefits, but you don’t want to push too hard. You have to find the balance and look out for the patient first.”
His positive energy and personality are a joy to be around.Deborah Crown,MS, CRC, LCPC
Although many people would find what he does to be challenging, Ezeife says it is exactly what he was looking for. “I’ve gotten much more from this than I initially wanted.” Says his supervisor Deborah Crown: "Nnanna is a bright, hard-working healthcare professional who easily develops rapport with his research participants and coworkers. His positive energy and personality are a joy to be around. He is always willing to step in and help others with any task that needs to be accomplished.”
With more than two years of research experience in hand, Ezeife is now ready to think about his next step. His ultimate goal is combining a medical career with research, becoming a physician-scientist, something that he sees is possible when he looks around at those who work at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab: “I would like to see how I can do both.”