Just days after graduating from MUSC College of Health Professions as a certified nurse anesthetist, Esther Odeghe reflected with admiration and gratitude on the journey she has made – from a young girl in Nigeria who could only helplessly watching her grandmother die in pain to a professional who can provide physical and emotional comfort to patients.
The journey was not easy but was accompanied by zigs and zags and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But prayer and the people in her life made all the difference.
“When I graduate and look at what my paycheck is going to be, it makes me sit back and think, ‘Yes, God has been fair. God has been faithful’, being where I don’t had no room, and I intended to sleep in my car.
Odeghe’s story begins in Aba, Nigeria, in the midst of five children and the only daughter. In Nigeria, she didn’t even know anesthesia existed. Because medical care has to be paid for upfront, she says, most people only go to hospital when they have no other options. His grandmother, whom they called Mma Mommy, died in pain after undergoing “a spell”. Years later, in nursing school, Odeghe began cataloging her grandmother’s symptoms and realized it may have been a preventable death. But back then, the only thing the family could do was call the naturopathic doctor.
After completing his education in Nigeria, Odeghe followed his two older brothers to the United States for college.
“Coming here, when I came here, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to leave Nigeria,” she said.
She landed at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. With a whole new world of possibilities opening up to her, she was an indecisive major at first. But after carefully considering her strengths and weaknesses, she decided to become a nurse. Still, it was a choice she made with her head rather than her heart. It wasn’t until she started working as a technician at a Columbia hospital that she really began to enjoy the role.
“My best moments are seeing the patients smile,” she said.
While at SC State, Odeghe attended a presentation on different ways to advance in nursing, such as becoming a nurse practitioner or CRNA, and decided she would like to pursue CRNA training. CRNA programs require experience as a critical care nurse, so after graduating from SC State in 2014, Odeghe went to work at Carolinas Hospital System — now MUSC Health-Florence.
But when she moved to Charleston to be closer to her brother, an immigration paperwork blockage left her unable to work.
“When I got to Charleston, I was in tears,” she said.
“I wasn’t working. I had a nursing degree staring at me that I couldn’t use. I had the career path I wanted to pursue and couldn’t pursue. I had a pending immigration process that I didn’t know if it would go south.
She couldn’t even drive because her driver’s license had expired, she said.
She credits her church family for keeping her on track. Odeghe began attending the Charleston Revival Tabernacle when she first moved here, and the church has opened its arms to her — even to the extent that the pastor and his wife have allowed her to live with them.
She couldn’t work; she couldn’t go to school; and she couldn’t drive, so she threw herself into church life, joining the choir, teaching Sunday kindergarten and cooking. Looking back, she realizes that her hosts knew what a desperate situation she was in and always subtly made sure she had enough to eat.
It would have been so easy to give in to frustration and anger at her situation and turn to alcohol or drugs, she said.
“There is only one bad thought that could send you to the other side of life,” she reflected.
She believes God sent her to be with the right people to keep her sane through the toughest times. Through the church, she also met her good friend Unyime Edem, who became like a sister to her. For a time, Odeghe lived with Edem, and even after she started working and going to school again at MUSC, her friend was there to bring her food after long days, lend her money when she was short, comb her hair and listen to her ups and downs.
“I’m crying – I’m calling her. I laugh – I call him. When I broke up with my boyfriend, she was there. She’s been there,” Odeghe said.
Odeghe started the CRNA program at MUSC in 2019. Getting in was a huge accomplishment. “When I entered school, my pastor cried. Everyone who knew my story cried,” she said.
But staying indoors was also a feat.
She didn’t have the funds to pay each semester’s tuition upfront, so she took out loans and worked at Trident Medical Center to make monthly payments on what the loan didn’t cover — in fact, she made the last payment for her last semester just a few weeks ago.
When his classmates went out for a drink after an exam, Odeghe went to work. When she wasn’t too busy at work, she studied.
At one point, she thought she should give up so she could work full time and save some money before continuing her education. But it’s a tough schedule, and she feared that if she left, she’d never come back.
Reluctantly, she contacted Angela Mund, DNP, director of the college’s Division of Nurse Anesthesia.
“She doesn’t know how she touched me. I was scared to tell her, and she was just full of ideas,” Odeghe said.
Mund brainstormed ideas to reduce the financial burden and was able to help Odeghe qualify for in-state tuition, which Odeghe says was extremely helpful.
It also made her work even harder, if that was possible. After everything Mund did for her, Odeghe felt she couldn’t let her down by getting a bad grade. She also couldn’t let down her parents, whom she sent money to, or her church family and everyone who had helped her.
“It was an enriching and growing experience. I prayed a lot,” she said.
The supportive teachers, who saw through the “everything is fine” facade to the struggle on the inside, were instrumental in her success in the program, she said.
As for Mund, she saw Odeghe’s determination from the moment they met when Odeghe interviewed for college acceptance.
“She demonstrated resilience, which is an important attribute for our students and for CRNAs,” Mund said. “Once she started the program, she continued to overcome obstacles to her dream of becoming a CRNA. And even with these challenges, she still has such a positive attitude. I am convinced that this has played a vital role in its success.
And Mund said she looks forward to the incredible things Odeghe will accomplish.
After graduating, Odeghe heads to Cape Fear Valley Health System in North Carolina for a one-year contract. She plans to use this year to orient herself and decide where she would like to live in the long term. She knows she wants to settle in the United States, although she would like to participate in medical missions in Nigeria.
Odeghe said her journey has been difficult and stressful at times, but she is grateful for all the options she has now.
“I didn’t take it for granted,” she said. ” I am not complaining. I’m not complaining because I’m like, ‘This is an opportunity.'”