Dr. Ngozi Azike is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact across the country. The annual event is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project celebrating the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
The global pandemic was not something Dr. Ngozi Ezike signed up for in 2019 to become director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, but she has shown a strong dedication to leading the state’s diverse population during the crisis.
The past two years have been an endless series of long days, weekend meetings and interrupted vacations. An unprecedented crisis for which there is no playbook, the COVID-19 pandemic requires endless research and nimble thinking to manage the ever-changing situation.
“We were flying the plane as we were building it,” Ezike said. “I think the public saw for the first time how science developed.”
With the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rising in Illinois, Ezike tendered his resignation in late February. Government JB Pritzker commended Ezik for his leadership during the crisis.
“Dr. Ngozi Ezike has led the Department of Public Health for more than three years, his tenure defined not only by his ability to provide the latest expertise and data, but also by his empathy and compassion – millions during a tremendous time. Uncertainty to become a symbol of stability for people,” said Pritzker. “No one could dampen the sleepless nights and endless days of Illinois’ most vulnerable and her commitment to thinking first. His passing is a change I am reluctant to accept, but I am confident that Dr. Ezick’s next journey will be even better for the world – as has been the hallmark of every step in his career. She will be recorded in Illinois history books as the woman who saved lives and changed our state for the better.
Izzie is only the second woman — and the first African American woman — to head the 145-year-old Illinois Department of Public Health. She is also the first IDPH director to become a household name, a branch of the organization speaking at daily televised news briefings in the early months of the pandemic.
A board-certified internist and pediatrician, EZK worked for Cook County Health for more than 15 years before becoming director of IDPH. She was also the medical director for the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, and is a nationally recognized expert on health care in the juvenile criminal justice system.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Ezik’s career path was set at an early age by his father, who immigrated to America from Nigeria to study chemistry. Ezike followed in his footsteps, studying chemistry at Harvard before earning a medical degree from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. An internship and residency at Rush Medical Center brought her to Illinois.
Ezekie, a mother of four, credits her husband, Dr. Emeka Ezic, and her belief in a higher power for helping her cope with the stress of the pandemic.
In his role as Director of IDPH, Ezike diversifies not only through his personal background, but also through his interest in others from diverse backgrounds. He is fluent in Igbo, the native language of both his parents, as well as Spanish and French. She also knows basic greetings in several other languages. As a doctor, she often welcomes patients in her own language.
“Connecting with people in their own language demonstrates a cultural humility, that you understand that it’s not just about English, or one major culture or language,” she said.
In an effort to connect with Illinois’ significant Latino population, Ezike has translated her COVID-19 updates into Spanish at every single news conference, an effort she says paid off.
“I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said, ‘Because of you and because your agency was deliberately engaged in making sure that the Spanish-speaking population got the information they needed, they wanted to save their savings. Were able to make choices. Lives,'” Ezike said. “I heard it over and over again.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In my father’s culture, the smartest people go to med school. Our pediatrician signaled to Dad, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen a baby walk in 7 months, that’s going to be a sign of intelligence.” She predicted that she would be very smart and very athletic. So my dad ran with it, and said, “Great, we’ll finally have the first doctor in any family.”
After high school, I wanted to take a year off to train for volleyball and go in, and my dad was like, “It’s not a tough one.” I was into athletics in high school and I still have all these records and banners on my school wall 30 years later. I was the most valuable player for volleyball and basketball. I had several offers to play college sports, and my father was like, “No, I don’t want you to play sports in college. You’re going to be a student preparing for med school.”
As a person who represents two groups, both as a woman and a person of color — and a mother — I naturally bring to the table concerns that other people did not live up to. Being able to be at the table and really lead allows me to teach everyone some important lessons about why you need to have different voices. Being able to bring that holistic experience into discussions helps us achieve better outcomes for everyone.
Well, it was not a walk in the park before the pandemic. There is always an emergency. We had a measles outbreak; We had incidents of vaping that took lives. …it’s a really big state, so trying to navigate and drive to cover all parts of the state… I was busy. But it was a different kind of engagement. In March, April and May, I was in the governor’s office every single day, seven days a week, until 7 pm. It was quite intense. I wasn’t traveling as much across the state, but it was just high-stakes, high pressure and new information was coming out every second. It was evolving every hour.
It did, and it didn’t. It was more hopeful thinking, “Yes, now we have a tool that can shepherd us to the end and reduce suffering and loss.” But it was the intense challenge, and the pushback for the vaccine, and trying to come up with really finding the right message, making sure you’re actively reaching out to the groups that have the worst outcomes with COVID and then Also has the lowest vaccine rates.
Every time we were counting these deaths, I was like, What I wasn’t able to do, I wasn’t able to resonate with the significant minority of people who don’t want to get vaccinated and then have such dire consequences. suffer? I am a doctor. I spent many years training people to help keep people well and live their best lives, and I felt a sense of responsibility for these individuals. I couldn’t control the information they had received, I couldn’t take their place so that they could make a decision that would support them and their families. It is an ongoing challenge, nonetheless.
The biggest win is just the incredible teamwork and collaboration that I have enjoyed with IDPH. We have the most incredible people doing all this incredible work on behalf of Illinois residents, and they’re not getting accolades — they’re not in front of the camera, and they’re not getting rewards. To make things better, they’re just doing what they’ve been told to do, and they’ve done it for two years in a row. , I’m really proud of the team, and so proud of the collaborations I’ve made during this journey, so many lasting relationships.
We are going through all kinds of changes in our society – I am so excited to see the support of Black people and their willingness to fight racism after the public killing of George Floyd, and I thought it might signal a better time to move on Used to be. How were we going to work to make sure everyone had rights. But now, when I see how we’re trying to limit rights, how we can’t pass some of these Civil Rights Voting Acts, I’m a little concerned, and so I’m a (minority) It is a pleasure to be the representative of ) To show the community that we need leaders from all backgrounds, that we are all capable of doing good work on all these different fronts. I know some people react really negatively to diversity, equality, and inclusion, and I hope that, when you look at different people in different roles, and you see the different things that they do. roles, you can appreciate how there are significant benefits to ensuring that everyone is involved in all the important tasks that need to be done, and of diverse voices and ideas in more comprehensive planning. Benefits of having
Leslie Renken can be contacted at 309-370-5087 or [email protected] Follow her at Facebook.com/leslie.renken.