A walk with a purpose
Upstate medical student inspired to boost brain cancer research
BY JEANNE ALBANESE
It is fitting that the inaugural Central New York Walk for Brain Cancer Research at Upstate Medical University, organized by medical student Nneka Onwumere, fell on Mother’s Day 2022.
Onwumere’s mother, Elsweta Gordon, helped spark her interest in the field of neurology. Later, Gordon’s own health issues solidified Onwumere’s resolve to become a doctor.
Gordon worked as a medical assistant and later as a nurse in the neurology department of a hospital in the Bronx. She died in the fall of 2021, so 2022 was Onwumere’s first holiday without her.
Nneka Onwumere organized the inaugural Central New York Walk for Brain Cancer Research. Funds went to a fund named in honor of the late Debbie Gregg, who died of a brain tumor. (photos by Jeanne Albanese)
The 1.25-mile walk drew more than 40 participants and raised almost $3,000 for Debbie’s Brain Cancer Research Fund, which supports brain cancer research at Upstate and is part of the Upstate Foundation. The fund is in memory of Debbie Gregg of Cazenovia, who died in 2012 from a rare brain tumor. Gregg’s parents, sister and husband were among the people who participated in the walk, as was neurosurgeon Lawrence Chin, MD, dean of the Upstate College of Medicine.
“I was floored by the level of support we received,” Onwumere says of the event. “The weather was gorgeous, and those who walked brought joy to my heart.”
She decided to organize the walk after realizing the Syracuse area had events to support breast cancer and Alzheimer’s, but nothing for brain cancer. Squeezing in event planning around her medical school classes wasn’t easy, but Onwumere had a role model in her mother, who put herself through nursing school while working full time.
Onwumere volunteered doing clerical work during middle school and high school at the VA Medical Center in the Bronx, where her mother worked. On lunch breaks she would visit with patients. One told her she had a good bedside manner and should consider becoming a doctor.
“I really liked talking to patients,” she said. “It helped me learn how rewarding the doctor-patient experience could be.” She also likes doing things with her hands, which is what pushed her into neurosurgery over neurology.
Upon graduating from college, Onwumere applied to Upstate’s medical school. She was not accepted. Instead, she started to pursue a master’s degree closer to home and took a job as an office assistant for an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She was promoted to research assistant.
Around the same time, her mother started having a series of strokes, furthering Onwumere’s interest in neurosurgery and inspiring her to keep pursuing her dream, despite her initial failure to get into medical school.
Onwumere applied to Upstate again. She was accepted to the Medical Scholars Master’s program, which provides students extra enrichment and a pathway to medical school. She earned that master’s and started medical school in 2020.
“My mother’s experience reminded me of what I could be,” Onwumere said. “It reminded me of what I should be trying to do. It reminded me that I could possibly make a difference instead of giving up. I am very grateful Upstate gave me a chance.”
In addition to her regular schoolwork and responsibilities as a medical student, she has been shadowing doctors in the neurosurgery department. Raising money to boost brain cancer research is a cause that’s important to her, so she was happy to organize the walk.
“My dream is that even after I graduate, this will be a yearly walk. It is something I feel like I can leave as a mark here at Upstate.” She notes that donations and volunteers for the 2023 walk are being handled through the Upstate Foundation.
This article appears in the spring 2023 issue of Upstate Health magazine.