An Interview with Dr. Chika Stacy Oriuwa – BHSc (Honours) Alum, Class of 2015
Dr. Chika Stacy Oriuwa is a graduate of the University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine, where she was named the valedictorian of her graduating medical class. She is a physician, professional spoken word poet, public speaker, writer, and advocate for racialized and marginalized populations. Presently, Dr. Oriuwa is completing her residency in psychiatry at the University of Toronto where she aims to go on to complete further sub-specialist training in neuro-psychiatry. Dr. Oriuwa also serves on Indigo’s Board of Directors, using her expertise to influence their efforts in creating equal opportunity and curating spaces of wellness and inclusion. She is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards and honors, including being recognized as one of Best Health Magazine’s ‘2020 Women of the Year’. Additionally, Dr. Oriuwa was recently honored in Mattel’s #ThankYouHeroes campaign alongside five other women with a one-of-kind doll made in her image to commemorate her contributions as a frontline healthcare worker.
What led you to pursue your current work/career path?
My desire to become a doctor stems back to my earliest years as a child. I knew from three-four years old that I wanted to become a physician when I learned that my uncle in the US spent his days taking care of newborns as a neonatologist. Given that I had loved babies from that young age, I immediately declared that I, too, wanted to spend my life as a doctor who took care of babies. Of course, at that age, I had no concept of the arduous path to medicine. However, I consider myself fortunate that my natural talents and passion for biology, chemistry, and communication all lead to my eventual career in medicine.
Can you provide some insight into your area(s) of study/research?
My medical specialty is psychiatry. I chose psychiatry because it was the perfect marriage of my love of medicine and my investment in advocacy for marginalized populations. Psychiatry is often seen as the “underdog” of medicine, as it is rapidly developing, and the science is always evolving. However, it has become more clear than ever that mental health is one of our top priorities as a society. Rarely will we find someone who hasn’t been significantly impacted by mental illness – either through a family member or personal experience. My particular interests within psychiatry include neuro-psychiatry, which is the fascinating intersection of neurology and psychiatry. This field, too, is evolving rapidly and the research around it is fascinating. As a part of my research work, we are exploring the use of neuromodulation and neurostimulation in the treatment of functional neurological disorders and traumatic brain injuries.
In what ways do you see your work being impacted by the effects of the pandemic? Are there new challenges to consider that didn’t previously exist, or maybe weren’t as amplified pre-pandemic?
The pandemic has unearthed many inadequacies in our healthcare system, from how we treat and protect our elderly, to how we deal with mental health. Through working on the frontlines for the past year, I saw firsthand the influx of patients into both the medical emergency room and the psychiatric emergency department. Research has shown that during the pandemic, there has been an increase in mental illness and mental health crises across the spectrum – from increased prevalence of mood disorders, to increased substance use and suicidal behaviour. We are also learning about how the pandemic is affecting our youngest generation – children – who have also had to deal with increased social isolation and online learning. The effects of the pandemic have touched us all and heightened the priority for mental health care across generations.
You are a passionate advocate and voice, for equity, diversity, and inclusion, you have achieved so much and are an inspiration to so many, what are some of your most valuable lessons learned along the way?
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is to seek and lean on your mentors throughout the advocacy journey. I have been fortunate enough to have incredible mentors from different stages in my life. From the BHSc program, I have Stash Nastos, who has been an invaluable resource and friend to me since my second year in the program, nearly 10 years ago. From medical school, I have had the privilege of being closely tied to brilliant female physician mentors, including Drs. Onye Nnorom, Pier Bryden, and Lisa Robinson. These doctors took me under their wings my first day of medical school and guided me throughout my advocacy journey. They shouldered me through every difficult decision and provided wise counsel when I was making career and advocacy decisions.
One other lesson is the power of vulnerability. Throughout my advocacy journey, I have shared my narrative of navigating predominantly white medical spaces as a black woman. I have bore my soul in front of the world and opened myself up to criticism from strangers. This at times has been challenging, and even risky to my career, however I knew that there was power in my truth and that I could lend my voice to the betterment of medicine.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my role in helping to advise the implementation of the Black Student Application Program, throughout my time at the University of Toronto. I lent my narrative of being the only black student in my class to the campaign and spoke avidly about the importance of diversity and equity through a number of platforms. When I graduated from U of T Medicine in 2020, they also admitted the largest incoming class of Black medical students in Canadian history. Being a part of this legacy is what I am most proud of, as well as, graduating as valedictorian of my medical class.
Your spoken word pieces are deeply powerful and moving, how did you become interested in spoken word, are you able to still find time to dedicate to it?
I started writing poetry around the age of six-seven years old. I was first introduced to spoken word from watching Def Poetry Jams while visiting my cousins in the US. Witnessing how the poets brought their words to life on stage ignited the passion for me. I started sharing my poetry in class, during assemblies in elementary school and even over the morning announcements. This passion further evolved in university when I joined a professional competitive slam poetry organization and competed at the national level for two years in a row. I have since retired from competitive poetry when I started medical school. However, I continue to use poetry as a means of socio-political commentary and advocacy, which I did for my piece ‘Woman, Black’ in medical school. I am still dedicated to writing poetry and will take the opportunity to perform whenever it presents itself.
You can find more of Dr. Chika’s powerful spoken word, speeches, talks and poetry below.
What did it mean to you to be honoured by Barbie for your advocacy in dismantling systemic racism in health care, with a doll made in your likeness?
Having the honour of being a Barbie role model meant representing the cultural shift of acknowledging and highlighting the limitless potential of women, especially black women, in all professional spaces. Growing up, I loved playing with barbies but didn’t have one that looked like me, nor was there one who was made to look like a doctor. Eventually, the doll line evolved and included Barbie as a doctor, and then Barbie as a black girl. However, it would take several more years before there was a combination of the two – a Black doctor Barbie. When I had the opportunity to create my own Barbie, I wanted to ensure that it reflected the values that I hold close, like ensuring that my Barbie had natural, Afro-textured hair, my skin complexion (dark brown) and was dressed from head to toe in medical attire. This, for me, was a ground-breaking representation of what a doctor looks like, and an affirmation that Black women belong in medicine.
Happiness and fulfilment are defined in many ways, what do they mean to you?
Happiness and fulfillment mean that I have the ability to live in my truth, as a physician, advocacy, Black woman, wife, and soon to be mother. Happiness means harnessing the power of my voice and my impact and sharing this with the world.
You have a day completely to yourself; how do you spend it?
Reading. I am currently devouring “Everything I Never Told You” By Celeste Ng. If I’m not reading, then I’m deep cleaning the space around me and listening to either Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, or Kendrick Lamar.
Most recent book you’ve read, and/or song you’ve listened to?
The last book I completely finished was “The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Dalila Harris, which was a page-turning thriller from start to finish. Highly recommend for anyone who wants insight into the reality of navigating white professional spaces as a Black woman, and how our values and personhood can be distorted in an attempt to fit in.
What excites you about the future?
Becoming a mother. I am currently 7 months pregnant and can’t wait to welcome my little one into the world. Outside of this, I can’t wait to continue to grow my career both within medicine but also as a public-facing advocate and keynote lecturer at different institutions.
How did your experience in BHSc prepare/inspire you with respect to your current path?
BHSc prepared me for my career in medicine and advocacy as it provided me with the option of exploring the multitude of my passions. I adored learning anatomy in the anatomy labs, then going on to become an anatomy TA in my final year of the program. I also had the opportunity to start and grow the “BHSc Annual Poetry Slam”, while also exploring my love for creating writing and expression through courses with Bob Spree.
If you could give advice to your first-year self, what would it be?
Never be afraid of the power of your own voice. Harness it and use it responsibly for positive change in those around you. Also, hold space for the ways in which your path differs from the norm. The years you will spend between undergrad and medical school will prove to be the most transformative and incredible years of your life.