Naikhoba Munabi: Global Perspective is Important

Naikhoba Munabi comes from a lineage of physicians that goes back four generations, to Africa, where her parents were born and trained. Her mother, a neonatologist from Nigeria, and her father, a Ugandan specialist in reproductive health, first met in Nigeria, then serendipitously ran into each other again while doing fellowships in the United States. They married in Nigeria and eventually settled and raised their family in Philadelphia.

Dr. Munabi decided to be a doctor at age 6. After boarding school, she worked in a mobile clinic in Tanzania as part of the International Service Learning program. “We did lots of primary care and health education,” she says. “But some patients came in with burns or traumatic injuries that required reconstructive surgery. I knew this was something I wanted to practice.” Her decision also had a personal dimension: At 19, she had surgery to correct a misaligned jaw. “I became very interested in craniofacial development after that experience. It was only then that I realized that my personal experience and experience in Tanzania all came together under the medical specialty of plastic surgery.”

Her family history, as well as her time in Tanzania and many trips to Nigeria and Uganda, have given her a valuable global perspective. “There are a lot of cultural implications to the treatments we do,” she says. “You learn over time that there are many ways to do even the simplest of things. And that doesn’t mean that one is more right than the others—they’re just different. This is how I’ve come to see medicine: It’s not always about the absolute correct answer, but about what will work best for that particular person, in that place, at that specific time.”

Dr. Munabi tells a story of a Tanzanian rancher she encountered who needed surgery on his cataracts to save his sight. He could pay for the surgery by selling just one of his hundred cows, but he refused. “He felt that a single cow was worth more than his vision,” she says. “And by worth, that was both monetary and emotional; the number of cattle you own is seen as a status symbol and determines your overall wealth. But he also knew each and every one of his cattle. I came to realize that asking him to sell a cow in order to see was like asking him to sell a child.”

Dr. Munabi will begin a residency in plastic surgery at the University of Southern California, her first choice. The program has a global health focus, which was a priority for her. “I’m very excited about beginning my training at a program committed to caring for a diverse group of people,” she says.