Ije Akunyili was embarking on a career in economic policy and development at the World Bank when she realized her passion for helping people, particularly the disadvantaged, could be served more directly through medicine. She changed course — and she’s been changing patients’ lives ever since.
A former EMRA Speaker of the Council, Dr. Akunyili offers a unique perspective on how to forge your path in this specialty while fulfilling even bigger goals.
Who gave you your best career advice — and what was it?
My very best career advice was from my Mom, who passed away 4 years ago. She said you have to work very hard, be 10 times as good as the next person, and remember the world is not fair, so no whining.
If you were just starting residency, what would you do differently?
I was a very, very hardworking resident, and I had 2 small kids. In addition to the work I did for EMRA, maybe I’d do more free clinics and more international work. It’s just a luxury I didn’t have.
How did your EMRA service impact your residency years?
My work on the EMRA Board was transformational. I was just a resident in Texas. All of a sudden I had a national platform where I was able, as a resident, to influence big decisions in emergency care and be at the forefront of advocacy. Through EMRA I found my political voice. I was able to do much more to take care of patients beyond my own ED. I still keep in touch with the people who were on my board. We meet up at ACEP and we check on each other regularly. It’s a nice brotherhood and sisterhood.
How did your expectations differ from reality when you transitioned out of residency into your full-time career?
I think the biggest surprise, as much as we feel like residents are not as engaged as they should be, is how much less engaged a practicing physician can be. At my first group a lot of my colleagues were not even ACEP members and had no concept of the issues the specialty was grappling with. Also, especially if you’re going to work at a community hospital, you can no longer just call the renal fellow, for example — you’re the doctor and you need to have the answers. That’s why I love the EMRA apps. I have all of them on my phone. I tell residents, “Look at yourself in your third year. Take a good look, because that’s your peak.” That’s when you’re absorbing the most amount of knowledge, the best skill set, your most focused attention. After working first in community medicine, you moved into a leadership position at an academic hospital and have continued up the ranks in administration.
What keeps you coming to work every day?
I love the balance I have. I love every facet of my life. I love shift work, and I also love being an administrator. I think I’m a better physician for being the leader of the team because I have a global perspective, and I’m not just affecting the lives of however many patients I see on shift, but also the 50,000 patients that pass through our ED. To lead a team that changes the story of emergency care, that’s amazing.
Best advice for surviving a shift during full moon?
Take your own pulse during a chaotic shift. I will intentionally dial back. I take longer breaths. I move very deliberately. Then I triage. Who’s going to die? Who just thinks they are? You can’t be hassled; you’re the captain of the ship, and everybody takes their cue from you. I’m never nervous. I have a plan A, B, C — I have a plan Z.
In my coat pocket right now?
I used to have everything — all the cards and books and pamphlets and notes. Now I have my iPhone.
Get to Know Ije Akunyili
Medical School: University of Maryland
Residency: University of Texas – Houston
Current Position: Chair and Medical Director, Department of Emergency Medicine, Waterbury Hospital in Connecticut
VIPs in your life? I have 2 beautiful children and my husband. They keep me going.
What do you do for fun? Oh…fun? I take care of my children. I try to read and exercise, and I listen to podcasts on every topic you can imagine.
What makes you laugh every time? My son. He s a great kid. He s 10 years old and he laughs all the time.
What goes on pizza? Nothing anymore; pizza is for residency.
How you get your exercise? I do CrossFit, I run, and I lift weights.
Most-used app on your phone: Hmm… somewhere between PEPID and the EMRA Antibiotic Guide and my podcast app.
Last song that stuck in your head? My daughter plays flute in her band, and she has practiced Majestica a million times. I’ve listened to it in all variations. She's such a hardworking kid.
Beach or mountains? Oh, beach for sure. If I’m off, I just want to lie on the beach and do nothing.