Celebrate contemporary heroes, too

February 23, 2009

February is National African-American History month. The Indianapolis Star has joined in the celebration by presenting profiles of African-American Hoosiers of a bygone era. These fossils and relics, which include Noble Sissle, John Morton-Finney and Madam Walker, were accomplished and gifted persons who have made significant contributions. I take no issue with any single member on the list, but wouldn't we be better served with profiles of young, living role models we can talk to—heroes who can talk to us? Let me submit for your consideration Mercy Obeime.

Obeime is a respected Hoosier physician. A native of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, she grew up in the rural town of Uromi, population about 50,000, where poverty was the accepted norm and the most fortunate had barely enough. She was the eldest of 10 children who shared two bedrooms. The family lived in a concrete block house with no indoor plumbing.

Mercy was identified as a gifted child when she was barely able to walk. She and her siblings were freed from afternoon chores—tasks such as fetching water, scrubbing dishes and washing diapers—as long as they spent the time studying. Mercy spent time studying every afternoon.

At 11, Mercy was sent to Federal Government Girls College, a boarding school for talented girls of elementary and high school age in Benin City, about an hour's drive from Uromi. Mercy's parents could not afford to pay for any of her school-related expenses, but fortunately the school was operated by the government, which provided tuition and room and board for all its students. She learned at school that medicine, accounting, engineering and other such professions were within her grasp. She realized she could be anything she wanted to be. She chose a career in medicine.

Upon graduation from medical school, she married her sweetheart, Chris Obeime, and followed him to Indianapolis. After a required residency, she interviewed at St. Francis Hospital on the south side. During this process, St. Francis personnel were reluctant to recommend she work at the family practice clinic in a poor neighborhood near Southern and Madison avenues, for fear of losing the bright young recruit.

"You don't want to practice medicine here," they told her. These patients don't have a lot of money and they are older and more difficult."

Obeime was undeterred.

"This is where I want to practice," she said. "I have seen poverty before."

Obeime was appointed medical director of the St. Francis Neighborhood Health Center in 1996 and still serves in that capacity. She has made the clinic a special place. Its mission is to provide primary and preventive care to families who cannot afford health insurance. Patients are charged only what they can pay without compromising their financial integrity. Oftentimes, the patients have no food or housing; the clinic staff—which includes social workers, nutritionists and a pregnancy coordinator—takes care of both. The clinic loses money and is underwritten by St. Francis.

Obeime has been recognized throughout her career for her work with the less fortunate. She was chosen as a national winner of the 2003 Spirit of Women Award in the health care provider category for her work at St. Francis. In 2004, she was chosen as a Local Legend, an award sponsored by the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., that celebrates the contribution of female physicians to the health of their communities and to our country. And IBJ recognized her in 2007 as a Health Care Hero.

Obeime wants to make a difference.

"When people come to me totally helpless and I am able to do something that actually puts a smile on their faces and makes them feel like they are treated like human beings, then I feel like it was worth my day to have gone to work," she said. "I have done something that day."

Let's celebrate African-American History month by presenting Mercy Obeime to our children. This people's champion is bettering our world—today.

Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns
Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com. 

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