Featured Doctors

Dr. Onyebuchi “Stephanie” Ofoegbu

New Waterford, N.S.

"When patients say ‘thank you,’ they say it with so much love. It reminds me of why I wanted to be a doctor in the first place – I wanted to help."

Caring for her community

Dr. Onyebuchi “Stephanie” Ofoegbu knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor. While there were no physicians in her family, an interaction with a doctor in her community set her on the path to study medicine.

“I went to the hospital one day and I saw a pretty lady dressed in white and looking angelic, and thought, I want to be like that,” recalled Dr. Ofoegbu, who grew up in Nigeria. “At the time, I thought women were supposed to be nurses and men were supposed to be doctors. Then someone told me, ‘You can be anything you want – a nurse or a doctor,’ and that was it. I was maybe seven years old.”

She studied medicine at the University of Benin and then a family medicine residency in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

Family medicine was a natural fit. “I like to practise medicine as a family unit and as a community, so family medicine was just ‘it’ for me,” Dr. Ofoegbu said. “I liked that I could provide health care for everyone in a family, from the baby to the great-grandma. I like the diversity and the challenges – it’s exciting.”

During residency, she went to the U.K. to complete a master’s degree in public health, broadening her skills on an international scale. “I wanted to be able to relate to anyone irrespective of the country you come from,” she said.

The experience inspired her to work in Canada. She came to Toronto with her family and began volunteering with non-governmental organizations. “I wanted to understand the Canadian lifestyle and make sure I could communicate with Canadians.”

Dr. Ofoegbu worked in public health as a resource coordinator with the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, which provides programs on HIV and Hepatitis C. As she became more familiar with Canadian health care, she longed to return to family medicine and began studying for the Canadian licensing exams. “It was a tough few years – mentally, financially, socially, emotionally – the works. But I told myself to just breathe and take it one day at a time.”

After clearing that hurdle, she applied to work in several provinces. Nova Scotia was the first to offer her a job, and in 2021 she joined the Practice Ready Assessment Program (PRAP). The program matches international medical graduates (IMG) family physicians to underserviced rural communities across Nova Scotia.

She completed two six-week placements in Antigonish and Middleton, then moved with her husband and their three children to Cape Breton, where she had accepted a position at the New Waterford Collaborative Practice.

Based at New Waterford Consolidated Hospital, the collaborative family practice is a close-knit team of six family physicians. “I work with a fantastic set of doctors,” said Dr. Ofoegbu, who took over a portion of patients from Dr. Stephen Farrell, a local family physician who was retiring.

“There’s something about coming into a community where everyone is available to help. It’s extremely important, especially when you’re a new physician coming to a new community. The doctors in my practice gave me very good support, even with my kids.”

One experience early on really stood out. “My son was in the same school as the child of one of the doctors here. On the first day of school, we did a car pool and it was really welcoming and very encouraging. It’s very important to have that team spirit and support to make sure the new doctor feels welcomed.”

Beyond her work at the family practice, Dr. Ofoegbu provides care to inpatients at the hospital and helps cover two nursing homes in the community.

She says it’s challenging to work in an underserviced area where many people don’t have a family doctor. “It’s easy to get lost in health care for patients, especially in a community where there’s a lot of need. It’s hard to see your fellow human beings go through so much – it’s social issues, it’s food, housing, light, water, it’s a lot.”

“It breaks my heart when I go home and I feel I haven’t helped a patient, not because I don’t want to, but because there’s nothing more I can do.”

Dr. Ofoegbu and her colleagues are doing what they can to help. Once a month, they run an evening clinic for patients who are without primary care. They’ve also organized a supply unit in the waiting room of their clinic, where people bring clothing and shoes and other necessities. “Anyone who comes in can just pick things up if they need them,” said Dr. Ofoegbu.

She says her colleagues are all looking forward to moving their practice into a fresh modern space, as part of the New Waterford Community Hub. Construction is underway. When the hub opens, it will provide a new health care centre, long-term care facility, wellness and recreation centre, as well as a new school for the community.

In the meantime, the daily interactions Dr. Ofoegbu has with her patients keep her motivated to provide the best care possible. “When patients say ‘thank you,’ they say it with so much love. It reminds me of why I wanted to be a doctor in the first place – I wanted to help. I enjoy that I’m helping people and providing health care services to people who haven’t had a doctor in many years.”

Looking ahead, she is also excited to pay it forward by welcoming future new recruits and medical learners into her supportive community. “I don’t have students with me just yet, but it’s something I’ll entertain in the future, now that I’ve achieved the CCFP certification. Working with my colleagues, I would not trade that for anything. We are a family – it’s a true definition of team work.”

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