“I didn’t think it was possible”, Dr. Kwaswo Sarpong’s answer to my question about whether he saw himself becoming a resident Neurosurgeon at the prestigious Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the United States of America.
It has been a long journey. Not that he’s a man of little faith. For it takes faith to move, switch courses and pursue dreams that only God can tell how it will end.
A journey that took off when Kwadwo won the US Visa lottery. He left his studies at the University of Ghana into a land of hope. Science seemed far off, business the more likely option for his young mind.
“I had no idea about science. My goal was to transfer and just continue my education. But not in the sciences. I realized it’s difficult to start school so I had to prioritise work. So I worked for like a year, as a cashier at Walmart, and then got a job in 2010 as a Housekeeper in a hospital.”
Kwadwo recalls this definitive milestone in his life with the unavoidable reality that at the time his work as a housekeeper took off, his colleagues at the University of Ghana were following through with the degree program he had left.
“If a patient is discharged, you go clean the place, you clean the bathroom. Luckily for me after one year, I was transferred into the operating room Housekeeping. Meaning you go in and clean up when a case ends. I was still cleaning the bathrooms”
Kwadwo was just 21 and he met a surgeon who changed his life for good. Dr. Robert Fritz a General Thoracic Surgeon at Gwinnet Medical Center (now Northside Gwinnet Hospital). He could not understand why someone at Kwadwo’s age will be doing such work;
“You look too young to be doing this,” he said to me.
“In America, when they see a black person doing such a job they basically think you did not take life seriously. Even at the hospital, they saw me as someone who could have done better. Personally, I knew the end goal was to go to school. But not for medicine. He asked me what I want to do in future. I saw his badge and it had ‘General and Thoracic Surgery’ written. I said I want to be a thoracic surgeon”
Kwadwo was a cashier at Walmart and doing cleaning at the same time. Dr Fritz made him an offer of working with him, shadowing and learning from him. He advised Kwadwo to quit the cashier job so he can have enough time as well as access to the hospital so he learns from him.
“I was following him around and he started teaching me stuff. It exposed me to medicine and I decided to go to medical school.”
Dr. Sarpong’s mind raced back at this point to his brother who had a mobility disability he never understood. He thought medicine could provide some answers.
“Now I was very curious to figure out what went wrong. That started the journey. I started from a community college to be able to do chemistry, physics, biology because I had no such background.”
Kwadwo after community college, entered Emory University in Atlanta where he studied Bachelor of Science, majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. From there, he continued at Georgetown Experimental Medical studies in Washington D.C where he obtained a Medical Certificate.
Then to Georgetown University School of Medicine for a Doctor of Medicine Qualification. He has since completed and will in the next 7 years be working to perfect his neurosurgery practice at Vanderbilt.
It has been a journey of Kwadwo relying on scholarships, financial aid from various individuals and student loans.
Another person Kwadwo remains indebted to is Edjah Nduom, an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Emory University. Dr. Nduom recently made the news when he was appointed by the US President, Joe Biden to introduce him as he launched the Cancer Moonshot project to curb cancer deaths.
“I knew I wanted to do neurosurgery (at this stage). When I was at Emory, he was leaving. When I started Medical School, I emailed him randomly. I was like, I am interested in Neurosurgery and would love to work with you. He was working at the National Institutes of Health, the biggest research institute in the whole world.
“He responded that he did not have a position in his lab but will circle back if there was an opening. I took my mind off it thinking it was one of those things. To be able to get into a neurosurgery residency, you have to be excellent and do so many things to qualify. Last year only 8 of the people that got matched were blackout of 234 spots offered in the United States.
“So I needed to find out another opportunity. He sent me an email later offering me a position. So I ended up working with him at the NIH. Seeing someone as black as you, knowing he’s been able to achieve all this greatness, I knew I will be able to do this. He offered to support me and has never wavered.”
Kwadwo has picked many awards including the Clinton Global Initiative Honor Roll recognition in 2017.
He also won Emory University 40 under 40 recognition and a Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award for Volunteerism.
In 2014, Kwadwo received a strange invitation from the White House. He got another email later asking him to attend an event hosted by US President Barack Obama for a summit.
This was to offer him an opportunity to speak about the non-profit work he had started not long ago. He had cofounded the African Research Academies for Women (ARA-W) with his friend Shadrach Osei Frimpong to nurture the interests of aspiring female scientists in Africa by providing hands-on experience in research laboratories. He was to represent his organisation at the programme.
He followed through with the processes and the reality dawned on him when he got to the programme to find his name among the guest list.
“We open applications in January. They go through a selection process and we offer acceptance to about 10 to 15. We place them in labs at Noguchi, WACBIP and at KNUST. We place them in housing and give them a stipend and pay for them to do research, community engagement among others. They do a presentation afterward. They are then paired with mentors. One of our students won the Presidential challenge in Ghana”
How do the next 7 years look for Kwadwo?
“The next 7 years will be the toughest, I felt very supported when I interviewed with the neurosurgery faculty and residents at Vanderbilt. They are also very big in Global neurosurgery with partnerships in Tanzania and Ghana. Interestingly, the program manager for their global neurosurgery is from Ghana, Dr. Joseline Haizel-Cobbina. Knowing that she’s there, gives me assurance that I will be supported. It’s going to be tough but I have support from Dr. Nduom as well. This is when I need him the most now.”
Dr. Kwadwo Sarpong is married to Priscilla and they are blessed with a daughter, Madison.