What’s in a name?


Many good stories do not begin well. Mine didn’t. I was born in the urban slums of Lagos, Nigeria. As if it was not bad enough to be poor, I was also sickly. Some of my earliest memories include those of persistent, prolonged bouts of cough that ended in a whoop. I often puked on myself too. I had whooping cough. I survived that but those early experiences shaped my future aspirations to become a physician.

My woes continued when I enrolled in primary school. Because I was raised in a multi-ethnic community, my first name quickly became an issue. In Ibibio, my native language, Utibe is pronounced something like \ü-tə-be\. But that is no easy task for a non-Ibibio speaker. So I was called everything from Otube to Mutibe. Not a big deal, though; I have mispronounced thousands of names. However, I recently came up with a neat solution. I now ask to be called ‘UT’. Yeah, You-Tee. Isn’t that easy?

I was born Utibe Effiong John. But by the time I started high school, I had given up ‘John’ because I didn’t know my grandfather that well; he passed on when I was about six years old. I also wanted my dad to take whatever glory came from raising me. But most interestingly, I gave up my foreign name because I didn’t know any foreigner who had an Ibibio name.

But what’s in a name? Utibe may mean either ‘wonderful’ or ‘miracle’ and the Ibibio strongly believe that names create destiny. Mine has lived up to expectations. I miraculously survived pertussis and later meningitis. It was indeed a miracle that I was admitted to study medicine and that I actually got through medical school. It is a miracle that I have studied public health, environmental health and epidemiology at one of the world’s greatest institutions. I spoke about these miracles at a recent TED talk in Berlin, Germany.

I have certainly seen many miracles since I was inducted into the medical profession. The most important being the miracle of saving lives with limited resources. The job of a physician in the developing world is a daily miracle. But it doesn’t have to be. We could save many more lives if we had the right technology, systems, policies and governments in place. This is why I am thrilled to be in a position to talk to a global audience about the health issues of humanity from a unique perspective – that of a physician with 13 years’ first-hand experience with the health system of a developing nation. I am privileged to be able to help people make tough decisions by using evidence as the basis for tradeoffs.

Many good stories do not begin well. Mine didn’t. But it seems to be heading in the right direction especially now that I have your ears. My name? Just call me UT.

This piece was originally published by the University of Michigan Risk Science Center.


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