Dr. Bennet Omalu The Nigerian medical doctor whose breakthrough research inspired the movie Concussion

“There was a moment I was immersed in their (football players) suffering. If my faith had not been strong, I believe I would have committed suicide. I was so alone. I lost my job. But it is that great American spirit that the truth is prevailing.” Dr Bennet Omalu

Being an immigrant could be one of the most challenging and difficult moments in the life of many people Africans living in the United States. But many are those who accomplishment has brought limelight to their countries of origin. One of such person who is in a class of own is Dr. Bennett  Ifeakandu Omalu.

Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu, born September 1968, is a Nigerian from the Igbo tribe. A forensic pathologist, who, as an Allegheny County Coroner’s Office neuropathologist, examined the brains of several deceased NFL players and was the first to publish findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players. He later became chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, and is a professor in the University of California, Davis, Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

In his early life Omalu was born in Nnokwa, Nigeria, Idemili South, in southeastern Nigeria, in September 1968, the sixth of seven siblings. He was born during the Nigerian Civil War, which caused his family to flee from their home in the predominantly Igbo village of Enugwu-Ukwu in southeastern Nigeria. They returned to their village two years after Omalu’s birth. Omalu’s mother was a seamstress and his father a civil mining engineer and community leader in Enugwu-Ukwu. The family name, Omalu, is a shortened form of the surname, Onyemalukwube, which translates to “he (she) who knows, speak.

Dr. Omalu in his professional garments

Dr. Omalu’s Educational Background ?

Omalu began primary school at age three, and earned entrance into the Federal Government College Enugu for secondary school. He attended medical school starting at age 16 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. After graduating with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in June 1990, he completed a clinical internship, followed by three years of service work doctoring in the mountainous city of Jos. As he told journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas in the biographical Concussion, he became disillusioned with Nigeria after presidential candidate Moshood Abiola failed to win the Nigerian presidency due to an inconclusive election in 1993. Omalu began to search for scholarship opportunities in the United States. He first came to Seattle in 1994 to complete an epidemiology fellowship at the University of Washington. In 1995, he left Seattle for New York City, where he joined Columbia University’s Harlem Hospital Center for a residency training program in anatomic and clinical pathology.

After residency, he trained as a forensic pathologist under noted forensic consultant Cyril Wecht at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. Omalu became particularly interested in neuropathology.

Omalu holds eight advanced degrees and board certifications, later receiving: fellowships in pathology and neuropathology through the University of Pittsburgh in 2000 and 2002 respectively, a Masters in Public Health (MPH) & Epidemiology from University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008.

Dr. Omalu’s Breakthrough Research

Dr Omalu came in the limelight after his breakthrough autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002 led to Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Webster had died suddenly and unexpectedly, following years of struggling with cognitive and intellectual impairment, destitution, mood disorders, depression, drug abuse, and suicide attempts. Although Webster’s brain looked normal at autopsy, Omalu conducted independent and self-financed tissue analyses.He suspected Webster suffered from dementia pugilistica, dementia induced by repeated blows to the head, a condition found previously in boxers. Using specialized staining, Omalu found large accumulations of tau protein in Webster’s brain, affecting mood, emotions, and executive functions similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Omalu’s efforts to study and publicize CTE in the face of NFL opposition were reported in a GQ magazine article in 2009 by Jeanne Marie Laskas. The article was later expanded by Laskas into a book, Concussion, and a film of the same name where Dr. Omalu is the central character portrayed by Will Smith. The movie’s production led to the creation of a foundation named after Omalu to advance CTE and concussion research.

“There was a moment I was immersed in their suffering,” Omalu said. “If my faith had not been strong, I believe I would have committed suicide. I was so alone. I lost my job. But it is that great American spirit that the truth is prevailing.”

When asked if the movie was redemption, he said no without hesitation.

“I was already redeemed by my love of God,” he said. “It was more a validation of players who suffered from this disease. A validation for the player’s families. Many said we wish we had known sooner. Wives said they thought their husbands were bad men. They just did not know how sick they were.”

Dr. Bennet Omalu is currently the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California and is a professor in the UC Davis Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. He is married to Prema Mutiso, a native of Kenya. They live in Lodi, California and have two children, Ashley and Mark. He is a practicing Catholic, and became a naturalized U. S. citizen in February 2015.

11 Nov 2015, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (L) poses with his wife Prema Mutiso and their children Mark and Ashly during the premiere of the film "Concussion" during AFI Fest 2015 in Hollywood, California, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian --- Image by © KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/Reuters/Corbis

 

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