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Mentorship in a Challenging Climate

Headshot of Dr. Omondi Nyong'o wearing a blue blazer, light blue shirt, and dark tie.

“At the conjunction of alumni’s paths and students’ pathfinding, NMF serves as a relay station where we can signal the ways to identify, meet, and overcome the inevitable obstacles along our journeys.”

From medical director to chairman to current president of National Medical Fellowships’ (NMF) Alumni Alliance, Dr. Omondi Nyong’o has held many titles –

Now, after nearly two decades working as an internationally recognized ophthalmologist, Dr. Nyong’o adds private practitioner to that list.

“An essential component of high quality is having doctors and patients meet without long waits or administrative hassles, and medicine risks getting further away from that with the amalgamation of health care,” Dr. Nyong’o said.

At his new private practice in Silicon Valley, Dr. Nyong’o specializes in pediatric and adult strabismus eye care with a “more convenient, personalized, patient-centered” approach, he added, and a “welcoming work environment.”

It’s imperative that Dr. Nyong’o’s team – especially his colleagues of color – always feel supported, he said.

“Because when we’re at the table and trained, we, too, can successfully care for thousands of sick people over our careers, creating a much bigger impact for society beyond us as individuals.”

Dr. Nyong’o was born and raised in the metro area of Detroit.

“My father, a pathologist and fellow NMF scholarship recipient, inculcated in me a love of science and inquiry,” he said. “And my mother, a pediatrician, took me to the Dominican Republic near the border of Haiti to assist in medical mission work.”

Dr. Nyong’o earned his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Brown University and his MD from the University of California San Francisco, but it wasn’t until his third-year rotation that he gave serious thought to ophthalmology.

“I was learning the apparatus of the slit lamp in the office of Dr. Kwok, a Cantonese-speaking ophthalmologist, and because I spent time thoroughly discussing medical histories with patients, several of them told Dr. Kwok they wanted to see me – the new ‘doctor’ – for their next appointment,” he said. “Dr. Kwok was kind enough to pull me aside and tell me so.

“Medical training traditionally has been competition-based, with one-upmanship, so when a mentor takes a liking to you and confirms the promise you have, that has a big impact.”

Dr. Nyong’o then worked at Kaiser Permanente Oakland, University of Washington Medical Center, and University of Michigan’s Department of Ophthalmology before joining the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) at Sutter Health, one of California’s largest medical systems.

As the first and only Black physician to chair any department at PAMF, Dr. Nyong’o served as the medical director for both philanthropy and surgical specialities, a principal investigator, and chair of both ophthalmology and the pharmacy and therapeutics committee.

He also participated in several medical missions to Mexico during his tenure, teaching and donating equipment to ophthalmologists who did not have the same chance for specialized training. Lastly, he designed and generated best practices for early detection of sight disorders via preschool vision screenings with primary care providers.

“We ran a study in which all three-year old children had to have their eyes tested during their well-child visit,” he said. “And what we found amongst children was that the rate of detectable eye problems was influenced by their ethnic backgrounds.”

It was a finding Dr. Nyong’o and his team weren’t looking for.

“So, if you’re looking back through studies and come across data that seems surprising or doesn’t quite make sense, look at it along ethnic demographics, and you might find some answers,” he said. “If we were to carefully analyze what seems to be non-health-equity-based research, we’d start to find some of these drivers of research results in fact come from equity-sensitive dynamics that are inherent to workflows utilized in health care today.”

Dr. Nyong’o said such disparities can also pertain to students and workers within a health care industry that doesn’t reflect patient populations.

“One of NMF’s strengths is showcasing through alumni activities what possibilities exist for students at the end of the pipeline,” he said. “We often dwell on ensuring there’s a pipeline that ‘flows forward,’ in which we source students with promise and then reduce barriers to their achievement.
 
“What we sometimes forget is what comes after each of us has attained our white coats with fully-fledged credentials. How equitable and assured are opportunities once we arrive at the pipeline ‘terminus?’

“Is the terminus really the end, or do we ferry through it to begin to define the direction of new pipelines that will enable our fullest potential as healers?”

To assist in that endeavor, Dr. Nyong’o mentors NMF scholars and is a faculty clinician educator at Stanford School of Medicine.  

“Many talented students are ready to take this journey, but those who have come before them can show them where the speedbumps are,” he said. “We have to inspire an attitude for this generation in waiting who, like we did once before, believes ‘I can achieve anything’ – well, we’re on the way there, and others like me are working to make space for that reality.”

Dr. Nyong’o continues to work with NMF to help accelerate the development of diverse leaders committed to dismantling systemic and structural racism in health care.

“We’re here to prove that the program works, throughout the many paths NMF alumni may forge,” he said. “And at the conjunction of alumni’s paths and students’ pathfinding, NMF serves as a relay station where we can signal the ways to identify, meet, and overcome the inevitable obstacles along our journeys.”