Bisola O. Ojikutu , M.D., M.P.H.
Bisola Ojikutu, M.D., M.P.H., is the director of the Office of International Programs of the Division of AIDS at Harvard Medical School and an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Serving the Community
By Karen Hopkin
Bisola Ojikutu didn’t grow up wanting to become a physician. “To be absolutely honest, and this is ironic, I really didn’t like science. The way it was taught in school was uninspiring,” she laughs. “I loved the humanities. In high school, I was a writer—I was the editor of the newspaper. I loved English, I loved history. It wasn’t until later on that I really got my medical juices flowing.”
Those medical juices started flowing while Ojikutu was an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, where she majored in … political science. As a freshman, Ojikutu did some campaigning for the mayor and helped out on community projects in the inner city. “I loved the work, and I thought it was great to try to get people mobilized to take action for themselves. But I also saw that I couldn’t make a practical contribution—a one-on-one contribution—to what was happening to a lot of these people,” she says. “We would go door-to-door on these campaigns, and it was obvious some of them were ill and were just not living well. That kind of started me thinking about how I could really make a change in their lives.”
It also helped that Washington University has a strong program geared toward preparing students for medical school. “All my friends were premed,” says Ojikutu. “They would all truck off to take their chemistry exam and they’d come back comparing scores and talking about the equations they’d masterfully devised in the middle of the exam. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I could do this, too,’” she says. “Plus, I wanted a challenge. The political science and social sciences came to me more easily than the science and math.”
Had Ojikutu not spent her college years in St. Louis, things might have been different. “I actually wanted to go to Stanford,” she recalls. But her father, who had emigrated from Nigeria in 1967, did not want his daughter to move too far from their home in Chicago. “In a Nigerian household, your parents really dictate what you do for a large portion of your life,” says Ojikutu. “My father basically said, ‘You’re not going that far away,’ and he crossed Stanford off my list.” But that turned out to be a good thing. “I don’t think I would have ended up going into medicine had I gone elsewhere,” she says.
While in medical school at Johns Hopkins University, Ojikutu continued to address problems in the local community—which in 1990s Baltimore included many IV drug users. “You’d park your car a block from the hospital and literally step over needles on the way to work because so many people in the area are addicts,” she says. “It was an environment I thought I could immerse myself in and learn from and maybe even make an impact on.”
One thing the experience taught her was that she wanted to find a specialty where she could help patients before their problems spiraled out of control. After seeing a man in the operating room who had developed an abscess from injecting heroin into his neck, Ojikutu says, “I remember thinking to myself, this is too late in the game. There’s a beginning of a problem and an end of a problem. And I’m standing at the end of the line here.”
During her residency at New York Presbyterian Hospital, she specialized in internal medicine and primary care. “I saw it as a way to continue to be involved in public-health-type things because I’d be dealing with people—not seeing them on an operating table but dealing with patients on a day-to-day basis, getting involved in their issues and their needs,” she says. And she wound up spending a lot of time in the HIV clinic. Working with people infected with HIV brought together Ojikutu’s strengths and interests. “I liked the fact that the science could be translated in this particular illness—from the bench to the patient all the way to the community and policy level. That to me was really appealing.”
After completing her residency in 2002, Ojikutu obtained a master’s degree in public health through the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in Minority Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. She also started sending e-mails to people who were working on AIDS internationally. “I felt like I really wanted to immerse myself in the epidemic in populations where there was a high prevalence of infection, where there weren’t a lot of resources, and where I felt I could be doing something,” says Ojikutu. One of the people who replied to her note was Bruce Walker. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a nice guy, e-mailing me back. Not everybody does that!’” Walker suggested Ojikutu travel to South Africa. “He said, ‘Go there and help. I believe you have the energy. I believe you have the potential. Just do it.’”
So she did. Ojikutu started out in Pretoria, working with the Clinton Foundation to draft a national plan for the distribution of antiretroviral therapy. She then moved to KwaZulu-Natal, the province in South Africa with the highest prevalence of HIV infection, where she helped prepare local hospitals to be able to administer the drugs. “When I arrived in 2003, fewer than 2,000 people were on antiretroviral therapy,” she says. Today, approximately 265,000 have received treatment, but approximately 1 million people are in need. Part of the problem is access to care. “Some government hospitals have 3,000 patients, and they can’t take care of them all,” says Ojikutu. Even taxi drivers, when they find out she’s a doctor, ask where they can go for medications—where they can find the shortest waiting list. “It’s a tragedy,” she says. “But it makes you want to keep coming back, want to keep helping.”
In addition to flying back and forth to South Africa half a dozen times a year, Ojikutu also sees patients at Massachusetts General Hospital and speaks to community leaders who are working with African American and Latino women infected with HIV. “I give them a sense that there are providers out there who understand the issues—and providers who may look like some of the patients they’re dealing with,” she says.
As for the science, Ojikutu is now fully on board. “I like the science now that I can translate it into patient care. That makes it real to me. That makes it exciting. That’s what motivates me to stay in this world.”
© 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A philanthropy serving society through biomedical research and science education.