From Botswana to Black Lake First Nation, the disease of foreigners hangs over Dr Nnamdi Ndubuka as if they were his own loved ones.
Relieving the suffering of the sick is a common thread across cultures and climates for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority’s medical officer of health, whether he is fighting HIV / AIDS in Africa or COVID-19 in the far reaches from northern Saskatchewan.
âThese are people I can relate to and share the weight with,â he says. “It is so dear to me to see the burden of disease and mental health suffering (of individuals) alleviated.”
Ndubuka is a senior public health official whose name has become known in the fight to control COVID-19 during the pandemic.
But he never forgot his background as a family doctor or the warm personal touch that his friends say has helped him forge lasting relationships with communities across the far north of Saskatchewan. where he grew up.
Ndubuka was born to the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria. Growing up, he aimed high, but he also discovered the connections between communities in his home country and Canada.
âParents (have) very high expectations. You are either a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer, âhe says.
âBut for the most part, I think I had a passion to make a positive impact on people’s lives. And that was really my main engine.
In 2004 he moved to Botswana with the idea of ââcontinuing to work as a family doctor. He enjoyed his time there, and it’s not hard to see why. General medicine is suitable for someone like Ndubuka, who has a disarmingly broad smile, ideal for calming nervous patients.
“His greatest weakness is his heart,” said Prince Albert’s medical officer of health, Dr Khami Chokani, whose family has forged close ties with that of Ndubuka.
âNnamdi has the ability to connect and understand. I firmly believe that (his) spirituality is the engine there, where you can see the human side of a person.
Some would take advantage of this concern for others, but his empathy and leadership go hand in hand, Chokani says.
âHe’s not lying to you. He tells you it’s going to be tough, but he says it in a nice way that sets you up. He prepares you.
As Ndubuka worked as a family doctor in Botswana and put his skills to good use, he had a lingering thought. He wondered if there were ways to prevent patients who come in every day from needing medical attention in the first place.
âHow can we give people the means to think about prevention as well? ” he says.
These questions took him deeper into the world of public health. He wanted to be an advocate for better policies and stronger population health. While in Botswana, Ndubuka got a taste of these interests when he contributed to major international research projects on HIV / AIDS and tuberculosis.
One of the goals of these projects was to find a way to prevent pregnant women from transmitting diseases to their children, and he got into the work. As Ndubuka prepared to leave after eight years, he began to see results as infection rates among pregnant women fell from double digits to one.
His interests led him to complete a Masters and Doctorate in Public Health in South Africa while continuing to work. As he finished his studies, he also had a family to consider.
That’s why he finally made a leap across continents to move to Saskatchewan, he says.
âAt some point in your life, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about your family, it’s about your children. You want to make sure that they secure their future where they have a better education, a better career, and (can be) responsible within the community.
Ndubuka says he and his wife chose Canada because they saw it as a multicultural society that could provide these opportunities. He quickly found a job with the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority and was coordinating with family friends who lived in Saskatchewan to help the family relocate.
Those early days in Saskatchewan were also culture shock, he says.
Learning about the local culture and traditions took time, but colleagues and family friends made the transition easier. One of the hardest parts was finding the right winter gear as the temperatures were dropping, but the cold never swayed newcomers.
âIf we work hard, we will achieve our Canadian dream,â he says of the moving time.
Ndubuka sees a multitude of similarities between health conditions in northern Saskatchewan and Botswana, ranging from racism and discrimination to housing conditions. Other parallels include poverty, infectious diseases, lack of access to quality health services, and social injustice.
âMost of us immigrants, especially from Africa, have very good relationships with (indigenous peoples),â he says.
These disparities widened in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Saskatchewan. Ndubuka has spent 18 months on the front line of the public health emergency, trying to crush the virus in isolated communities where a housing shortage has repeatedly skyrocketed the number of cases.
âWhen you leave the office and come home, you’re still working, going to bed (and) you’re still working. It’s really difficult, âhe says.
It is his passion to alleviate the toll on a person’s mental health that is caused by illness. This path has taken him to more unexpected places, leading him to the presidency of the Canadian Association of Nigerian Physicians and Dentists and other leadership roles in Prince Albert, where he lives.
This is where he can indulge in his other love: football. As president of the Prince Albert Youth Soccer Association, Ndubuka has taken on roles ranging from refereeing and coaching to appeasing worried parents.
He’s never too busy for a phone call or coaching young footballers, says association manager Mitzi Pytlak.
Even in the height of the pandemic, he still picks up the phone for any issues, she said.
Pytlak, who has been involved with the association for around 28 years, first met him when one of Ndubuka’s three children joined a local football team when he was young. Since then, she has come to know Ndubuka as someone who takes fairness seriously, but whose warmth easily makes him like new people, she says.
âHe has a very big heart. Inclusiveness is really important to him – to include all newcomers, people who can’t afford to play football, things like that. He wants everyone to join him.
Ndubuka himself plays the game, and the sport has been a escape from some of the more stressful parts of his job. He loves watching a child learn new skills and use sports to understand life lessons like personal professionalism and teamwork. Nothing could be more fulfilling, he says.
Her faith and her family have only become more important supporters during difficult times, when the number of cases is most stubborn, or when vaccination rates stagnate behind full herd immunity despite her best efforts.
These essays aren’t new – and neither are his supporters – but they have shown just how intimately connected he has become to the house he has chosen and how his personal history has prepared him for it.
âThis is where I need to be. I’m not going anywhere else. I work with communities and help change the narrative.