It's our unlimited power to care and to love that can make the biggest difference in the quality of our own life according to motivational speaker Anthony Robbins. For Therese Sirri Atang ’67, (Sirri Nomo-Ongolo, MD, PhD) it’s her unlimited power to care and to love that has made the biggest difference in the lives of individuals from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities in Minnesota to the cities in Cameroon, Africa where she grew up.
Nomo-Ongolo has never taken the easy road. She has chosen to use her life, skills and talent to pave new inroads in medicine, including creating the first blood bank in Yaounde′, the capitol city of Cameroon, and developing a diabetes education program for low-literate individuals. Today, Nomo-Ongolo focuses on building her home health care business in the Twin Cities as well as performing civil surgeon responsibilities and maintaining a travel medicine clinic in St. Anthony, MN.
When asked about her accomplishments and career milestones, Nomo-Ongolo is quick to point to her Alverno education as providing the building blocks for her success.
The Alverno Journey
“Alverno became my teachers, my family, my everything,” she said. “So many of the important lessons I learned in life came from Alverno. Lessons that apply to life, not just medicine. The value and importance of caring and giving back were reinforced along with the practical lessons of how to tackle difficulties, acquire good study skills, how to plan and how to see the big picture and look at small pieces of the puzzle to not be overwhelmed. These are lessons and skills you carry with you throughout life.”
Nomo-Ongolo arrived at Alverno in 1963 as an award recipient of the African Scholarship Program for American Universities (ASPAU). Established by President John F. Kennedy, the program (1961-1975) provided scholarships for 1600 African secondary school graduates to obtain undergraduate degrees at U.S. educational institutions.
“My father said I needed to attend a Catholic college. I was hoping for a small, caring setting,” Nomo-Ongolo said. “I was a blank slate when I came and I had no idea how fortunate I was to end up at Alverno. It was prayer that brought me there and the blank slate was filled with all of my wonderful Alverno experiences.”
Nomo-Ongolo knew she wanted to be a doctor but had no idea how to reach her goal when she arrived on Alverno’s doorstep. For anyone who knows her, failure isn’t an option and fortunately, Sister Joel Read was assigned as her academic advisor. Nomo-Ongolo and Sr. Joel shared an instant bond but they also had something else in common: Failure isn’t an option for either one of them. In looking back, she proudly attributes her accomplishments to her Alverno education, the teaching philosophy and the people she met along the way. Nomo-Ongolo explains the education and the relationships she formed laid the important groundwork for what was to come.
Recognizing a Need
“Dr. Anoma Ngu experienced difficulties in getting blood for surgery and for treating children with sickle cell anemia,” she said. “The only blood available was through a French blood bank, Centre Pasteur where it needed to be purchased. Yaounde′ Central Hospital is government owned and provides free care to patients. Many patients did not have the ability to pay for the blood they needed. Another option needed to be found.”
Anoma Ngu knew a hospital blood bank was the answer but wasn’t sure how to accomplish it. Through his urging, Nomo-Ongolo accepted the challenge. She soon learned that establishing the physical location of the blood bank wasn’t the greatest challenge. The real test was to attract volunteer blood donors. The hospital was unable to pay donors so Nomo-Ongolo turned to the community for contributions of food. The local bakery donated bread and the Guinness manufacturer donated beer. The goal was to provide blood donors a free sandwich and Guinness for their donation. By charging patients who had the ability to pay for blood what amounted to pennies, she used that income to purchase sardines for sandwiches.
“From that time on we were never in need of blood,” Nomo-Ongolo said.
Her husband’s career brought her back and forth to the United States and Cameroon and in 1985 she found herself back at Yaounde′ Central Hospital. This time, Nomo-Ongolo found another need. She tackled diabetes education. Although there is no cure, the disease can be controlled or managed through lifestyle modifications, education and in some cases certain medications.
Nomo-Ongolo created an education program for low-literate diabetics teaching patients how to live healthier, more productive and longer lives. As a result of her work with this population, in 1991 she was asked to speak to the International Diabetes Federation in Washington, DC.
“The incidence and severity of many diseases can be reduced through education. Geography, cultural issues and ignorance are deep-seated biases and changing those patterns takes time and patience,” Nomo-Ongolo said. “But the payback and end result is that through education, lives, money and resources are saved.”
The Road Less Traveled
Nomo-Ongolo is still seeing the need and fulfilling it. Now living near St. Paul she sees home health care as the need and started Complete Home Health Services providing trained caregivers (PCAs, HHAs and RNs) to care for individuals in the comfort of their home.
“We take care of our elderly but we have the capability to do a better job. Through use of home health care our seniors can be happier and healthier,” she said. In the process health care costs will be reduced. The medical community is aware of the benefits home health care offers. We still need to educate the population as a whole – not just our seniors but family members and friends. To ask for help is a sign of strength – not a sign of weakness.”
The Alverno journey that started many years ago continues for Nomo-Ongolo.“The memories of my time at Alverno are so positive and so strong. The experiences and lessons I learned became part of the foundation on which my life is built.