There are many great teachers who shape our lives: mothers and fathers, teachers in nursery school, grade school, and beyond. It’s not just the lessons that we learn from them, it’s the way they make us feel – safe, appreciated, full of boundless hope and optimism. I salute all those who have taught me along the way.
The very first time I received an NIH R01 grant as a principal investigator, it was followed by a congratulatory letter from John Kerry, my Senator at the time, and a lot of happy dancing on my part. NIH R01 grants were a dime a dozen at my then institution, a hospital with over three thousand researchers. There wasn’t much time spent on acknowledgment when you got one. It was simply expected.
When I received an NIH R01 grant as a principal investigator at my current university, the PR department issued a press release as it does for many happenings on campus. We are a relatively small medical and health professions school, a Historically Black Graduate Institution and Hispanic Serving Institution with about eighty researchers, in Los Angeles, a city with two giant universities that get almost all the press attention. I was absolutely ecstatic about the grant: after five grueling submissions in which I’d reshaped the idea based on feedback from skeptical reviewers and changed the type of grant as I accumulated publications, I finally convinced a group of my peers that many uninsured and underinsured patients with undiagnosed diabetic retinopathy had limited access to eye specialists in major urban areas of the US, and the use of telehealth and machine learning could help to identify patients in need and improve access (though a lot more than that needs to be done). When undetected and left untreated, diabetic retinopathy is a sight-threatening complication of diabetes. In fact, it’s the leading cause of blindness in adults under the age of seventy-five in the US.
The Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly African-American newspaper, noticed the press release and wrote an article. I was unaware that they had. Several weeks later, I received a Facebook message out of the blue from the daughter of Mrs. Youdeowei, the woman who ran the nursery school I attended as a child in Ibadan, Nigeria. Turns out that a sharp-eyed Nigerian had noticed the LA Sentinel article, the link forwarded and re-forwarded, making it halfway across the world to the country of Cote d’Ivoire, where Mrs. Youdeowei had long since relocated. She clicked on it, scanned the contents and burst into tears. She asked her daughter to tell me how proud she was of me.
Even though I could no longer picture her face, I remembered how much I enjoyed her nursery school, how loved and safe I always felt there, how happy I was to return with my baby brother, day after day. It had been many decades since my mother reached out to her as her last hope for daycare following the unexpected and devastating loss of half of her family. Now a single mom, she had to go back to work full-time while completing her doctorate. She needed a daycare that would take a twenty-one-month-old and a nine-month-old. Every daycare she went to said that both kids had to be potty trained, turning her away when she asked how she was to potty train a nine-month-old baby. Mrs. Youdeowei was the only one who agreed to take us in. My brother and I thrived at her daycare. Given the circumstances, she must have wondered to herself what would become of the two new babies in her care. The LA Sentinel link was her first inkling that we had exceeded her hopes for us. I was touched to know that my brother and I were still in her thoughts. She passed away late last year before I had a chance to tell her in person what a difference she made in my life, but her memory lives on in the lives of all the children, now adults, that she cared for all those years ago.