Campus & Community

Healing hands for an ailing world

4 min read

HMS/HBS graduate Nwachukwu wants to improve orthopedics

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

In rural Nigeria, the traditional bonesetter applied an herbal cream to the limb she had just set, chanted an incantation, and sent the patient home with instructions to keep the limb immobile for 51 days.

Harvard Medical School (HMS) student Benedict Nwachukwu observed the ritual. Instead of snickering at the traditional practices, as some adherents to Western medicine might, Nwachukwu took notes, seeking to understand the good and the bad.

After all, Nwachukwu wrote in The Open Orthopaedics Journal earlier this year, between 70 and 90 percent of all broken bones in Nigeria are treated by bonesetters. And, with just three orthopedic hospitals in a nation of 140 million, the need for bonesetters’ services isn’t going away soon.

The article, for which Nwachukwu was the first author, suggested integrating the traditional practices into the national health care system, providing training for the bonesetters to help them recognize which cases they should take and which they should refer to a hospital.

In many cases, the bonesetter’s care works, Nwachukwu said. For more complicated breaks, however, a delay in getting or failure to get surgery can lead to lifelong disability.

The study illustrates Nwachukwu’s three interests as he prepares to graduate from Harvard’s M.D./M.B.A. program with degrees from both HMS and Harvard Business School (HBS): orthopedics, management, and global health.

Nwachukwu, who lived in Nigeria until age 7, is graduating in May after five years at Harvard, and wants to apply the managerial insights he gained at HBS to the medical world. He is leaving Boston for a residency at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, where he got his first taste of orthopedics. Nwachukwu interned there as a Columbia University undergraduate, observing the sometimes dramatic change that joint repair or replacement can bring.

Though an athlete in college, Nwachukwu said he doesn’t have any special affinity for sports medicine. Instead, he traces his interest in medicine to his mother, a nurse in the London Chest Hospital. Nwachukwu moved to the United States when he was 16 and lived with a host family while completing high school in New Jersey.

At Harvard, Nwachukwu worked with Professor of Orthopedic Surgery Jeffrey N. Katz, a physician at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital and senior author on the bonesetter paper. Katz not only guided Nwachukwu through his research in Nigeria, he also included him on a team of 40-50 who traveled to the Dominican Republic to perform joint replacement surgery. While there, Nwachukwu conducted research on the treatment of high blood pressure among surgical patients.

Katz described Nwachukwu as highly skilled and dedicated.

“He has all the skills and characteristics to be a marvelous doctor,” Katz said. “I think Ben is a very special young man who will affect many people’s lives by putting hands on them as a clinician and also a leader of orthopedics, medicine, and health care.”

Nwachukwu has made a habit of fitting things he finds important into a busy schedule; despite the demands of the dual degree program and his research, he still has time for friends and basketball. He’s played on both HMS intramural and Boston city leagues, and, though he enjoys the game’s frenetic action, he also likes the peace of shooting jump shots alone in the gym.

Asked if he had any advice for incoming medical students about how to navigate the next four years, he said to not be intimidated, especially if they come from a small town.

“If you come in with an open mind and approach people, you’ll find people are very open and very warm. You’ll find people to help you pursue your passion and dreams,” Nwachukwu said.