Celebrating Black History
Enitan Sogbesan, MD, MSc, FRCSC, FACS ― Ubuntu: Striving for global solidarity through vision science
Enitan Sogbesan, MD, MSc, FRCSC, FACS, was educated at the University of Lagos (Nigeria), the University of Toronto (Canada) and the Universities of Bristol and London (England) for post graduate studies in advanced ophthalmology and public health. He completed his residency at the University of Ottawa Eye Institute and a fellowship in glaucoma and anterior segment at the University of Alberta.
Sogbesan is an associate professor and the residency program director in the Department of Surgery's Division of Ophthalmology at McMaster University (Canada). Currently, he serves as chair of the Canadian Program Directors Group at the Royal College Specialty Committee in Ophthalmology, plus is a member of the African Glaucoma Consortium and the International Teleglaucoma Society Advisory Board. He is also the Canadian Glaucoma Society (CGS) representative on the International Council of Ophthalmology and chair of the National Glaucoma Awareness Committee and the World Glaucoma Week.
Sogbesan's research focuses are in clinical and public health ophthalmology, teleglaucoma, virtual reality, interprofessional collaboration, diversity and inclusion, ophthalmic health economics and simulations. He recently shared his career journey and love for helping people with ARVONews, emphasizing how the African philosophy, Ubuntu, has guided him in all aspects of his life.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m originally from Nigeria, now I’m a Canadian. When I was a child, I was interested in being a doctor or an aeronautical engineer/astronaut. However, I have a family history of blinding glaucoma. That led me to want to know more about the eyes and glaucoma, then to prevent other people from going blind. The continuous need to make a difference in people’s lives was affirmed for me early in my career after I worked with HelpAge International, Helen Keller Worldwide and the World Health Organization (WHO) in various countries.
What surprised you the most when you started out in this field?
The magnitude of people going blind with no access to care or treatment.
What is your greatest achievement?
It’s being granted the grace to be part of a team of professionals who help patients with eye problems have access to eye care. Making a difference in people’s lives in whatever form, be it training eye care professionals like students and residents for the future, providing education to patients, building eye care centers in Cambodia, developing policies at the national or local levels, successful collaborations, working to provide care in remote communities / indigenous populations, and carrying out research that makes a difference. Of course, also the care provided each day that saves or restores each patient’s vision.
Do you have a role model? If yes, who?
My role models are the many mentors that l came across in all my educational experiences in different countries (Nigeria, England, Canada, USA) who, through their teaching and examples, exemplify excellence in care and are awesome educators and humanitarians with integrity. They were always looking out for me to succeed and were all high achievers in our field and for blindness prevention.
Have you encountered obstacles throughout your career?
Things have not always worked out as envisaged due to a variety of setbacks. The major obstacle has been having to redo residency training in Canada, which has also been a blessing. It provided opportunities to broaden my knowledge, skills and exposure to different care models. Having to find a position as an IMG training was a challenge. Going back to final year medical school to get a residency position was difficult, but a worthwhile experience.
Other obstacles have included those experienced by other clinician educators and researchers. Such as obtaining research grants and having the right funding for the equipment needed to provide care and achieve the full potential of the training. The main thing in life is to not allow any obstacle to limit one’s ambitions and dreams. The sky is the limit.
In your opinion, what obstacles do members of the African diaspora still face in this industry?
Black people do not, but could have, the same opportunities as other people. Even within minority groups, we are the “minority of the minorities.” This is exemplified in all stages — from restricted opportunities in high school, being told to go the technical route instead of the academic route; limited number of admissions to universities, medical school, and residency; all the way to the professional/faculty positions. It is common to be “the only black person” in the group. There are not many of us around the block. There are limited opportunities for job or position interviews, or deliberate exclusions from the process. If successfully employed, Blacks have had to work harder than their other counterparts, sometimes up to five times as much to have the same recognition as others. It is sometimes alarming to hear people say or query why a black person is in a leadership position, and the resultant effect of trying to undermine their achievements. Then there is the issue of generational wealth and its effect on our quality of life; how we make success for ourselves.
Have you noticed changes in the field as you advanced?
Over the years, there’s been some changes, especially as we have increased awareness of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). EDI policies and principles are being introduced and embraced by different institutions and academic organizations. Black mentorship programs are being introduced in schools and organizations to help young black individuals aspire to the possibilities that are available to them. Grants are being developed and given to help underprivileged black students to continue their education.
Also, support and self-help groups are helping to build or pull up other black people. We are looking out for each other more. I am a member of my university’s faculty of health sciences EDI group and the co-chair of my department of surgery EDI Committee. I have advised and supported other IMGs emigrating to Canada on how to get fully integrated into the health system.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I am hoping in five years l will continue to provide glaucoma and eyecare to people in different situations and countries, having developed policies and programs that improve access to care through my work in residency and post graduate education training, collaborations, research, global health, EDI and in leadership. This will involve improving my network and contribution to professional organizations and institutions in which l am engaged. I hope the non-profit foundation l am currently working on to support patients seeking care to improve adherence and compliance for eye care will be established, fully functional and sustainable as well.
What is the best advice you ever heard and abide by?
Not sure of best advice, but my guiding principle over the years has been based on the philosophy of “Ubuntu” — "I am what I am because of who we all are." It is compassion, kindness and humanity that connects us together, by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us. It is the belief that we are defined by our compassion and kindness towards others. This philosophy helps me to understand I am not alone, I have a community of people supporting me; what l do has consequences, therefore the need to aspire to greatness. Within this philosophy is the recognition and appreciation of our individual uniqueness and difference in skills and strengths.
Complementing this philosophy is the quote from Marianne Williamson’s book, Return to Love:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black History Month (BHM) is a time to raise awareness of the lived experiences and the current situation of the black race in North America, showcasing the daily contributions of black people to their communities and society. Especially for young black people to know their potential to contribute to a better future and avoid the stereotypical narrative that abounds. It is a time to celebrate our diversity and “lest we forget,” honor the legacy — celebrating the heritage, traditions and culture. It is also a time to focus our attention on how to address the major issues facing our communities. We need to remember and learn from the past for today and plan for a better tomorrow. The achievements and the history need not only be celebrated during BHM, but every day of the year.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experience and opinion on this platform. It has been a rewarding thing and I’m proud to be associated with ARVO’s contribution to highlight and celebrate Black History Month among its members.