For first time in years, city has a chief health officer

Laurel Leader

For Dr. Uzochukwu Unegbu, medicine had always been a passion, even as he was growing up.

“When I was little, I would see how doctors help people, and I’ve always wanted to do that,” Unegbu said.

A family doctor in Laurel, Unegbu, 48, has had a private practice since 2010. Originally, he considered a career in obstetrics and gynecology, but he wanted to be able to help all people so switched to family medicine.

“I get instant gratification being able to see that people who come in for medical treatment, and after intervention and treatment they come back in and say, ‘Thank you, what you did was able to help me,’” Unegbu said.

Now, Unegbu is able to reach even more residents of Laurel, not just his patients.

In March, of Laurel Mayor Craig Moe appointed Unegbu as the new city’s chief health officer.

Laurel has had a chief health officer throughout the years, but for the position has been vacant for the past few years, according to Moe.

“It was important for us to get the position filled if there was an issue, we could have someone to call on … [and] provide us that service,” Moe said. “We really appreciate it.”

The city’s charter specifies that the chief health officer position is voluntary, unpaid and appointed by the mayor, Moe said.

Moe met with Unegbu, went over his biography and credentials before he nominated him for City Council confirmation and approval.

According to Michael Leszcz, president of the City Council, the chief health officer is a good position for the city.

“Any time you can do something and recognize the growth of the city, that is good and i think that’s what happening here,” Leszcz said.

The chief health officer works with the mayor’s office and City Council to develop approaches to health issues that may affect Laurel residents, Unegbu said.

“For instance, with the issues of the Zika Virus and meningitis, we discuss what things do we need to have in place to protect the citizens of Laurel, Unegbu said.

Unegbu said that so far there has not been any drastic health events since his hiring in March. He has attended some health fairs and provided blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol checks. Unegbu also attended a symposium where he discussed the opioid epidemic with the community.

Moe said Unegbu understands the city of Laurel and the efforts that local officials make for the residents.

“When we talk about the welfare and health of our citizens of Laurel, it is important that someone knows how to identify things that could affect our residents,” Moe said.

Jim Peck, research specialist for the Maryland Municipal League, said that it is “relatively rare” for an incorporated municipality to have a health officer.

Peck said it is “certainly commendable” that the city of Laurel has such a position.

“The city of Laurel has always been a leader in public safety issues and I suspect this is an extension in the public safety [sector],” Peck said.

Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin had had several conversations with Unegbu on health trends, including Stop the Bleed, a national awareness campaign that advocates for people to be trained and equipped to help in life-threatening emergencies, according to the organization’s website.

McLaughlin and Unegbu also discussed Narcan deployment program. Now, all Laurel police officers carry two doses of Narcan at all times to administer during an overdose emergency situation.

“He is an amazing person … [and] is well read,” McLaughlin said of Unegbu. “He’s very progressive.”

Unegbu’s affiliation with the University of Maryland’s Laurel Regional Hospital has been important for the city as well, Moe said. Unegbu is the treasurer for the medical affairs staff and is an attending physician at the chronic care unit of the Gladys Spellman Specialty Care and Nursing Center.

“He has a wealth of knowledge… and [is] an individual with impressive credentials,” Moe said.

In 2015, Unegbu received the “Doctor of the Year” award from the former Dimensions Healthcare System, now owned by the University of Maryland Medical System and renamed to University of Maryland Capital Region Health.

Unegbu attended the University of Maryland, where he received a bachelor’s degree in life sciences. He received his medical degree from Spartan Health Sciences University in Vieux Fort, St. Lucia and completed his residency at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Unegbu, was born in Washington, where he lived for seven years before moving to Nigeria with his family. He returned to the United States when he was 17 to further his education.

“Since I was born here, this is where I decided I will continue my life,” the Bowie resident said.

Unegbu opened his private practice in Laurel because of his brother, Ejike Unegbu.

“He felt there is more of a need for people to serve the people of Laurel and that is why I decided to open my practice here,” Unegbu said.

Unegbu works hand in hand with his brother, who has owned Laurel Pharmacy on Van Dusen Road for almost 15 years.

In September, the brothers are opening a new pharmacy and MinuteClinic – a CVS walk-in clinic – together along U.S. Route 1.

“We get to work together because we try to work in the best interest of the patients,” said Ejike Unegbu, 46. “It gives us the opportunity to help the community better and provide a better tool to serve the community.”

At the MinuteClinic, Uzochukwu Unegbu will be able to treat minor cases such as coughs and colds for patients who come in after normal office hours.

Ejike Unegbu said his brother is a well-rounded physician, good with his patients and “has a good bedside manner.”

Every December, Uzochukwu Unegbu travels back to Nigeria for one week to complete a medical mission. During these missions, he sees patients who may be suffering with chronic hypertension, diabetes, congestive heart failure, arthritis and many others.

Unegbu educates the patients he sees about their disease, encourages them to take their medicine and tries to help prevent them from attracting other diseases that could be associated with their chronic illness.

“It enlightens me that there are less-privileged people out there who may benefit from the medical services I’m able to render,” he said.

Unegbu’s plan moving forward as the chief health officer is combating the yearly flu season by providing free flu vaccinations for all Laurel residents.

“There are no other things I can foresee on the horizon at this time, he said. “Things are pretty much stable, knock on wood.”

jnocera@baltsun.com

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