By Tara Richardson, M.D. Chief Resident
I first met Dr. Walter Kalu in 2013, when we were both interviewing for a spot on the following year's resident roster. I had the fortune of sitting next to him on a trolley tour of Wichita, which gave us plenty of time to talk. We talked about what led us to psychiatry and I was impressed by how much genuine thought and passion he had obviously given to the field already. I didn't know at the time that this was a person I would grow to admire even more in the coming years and would also become a great friend.
Dr. Kalu was born and raised in Benue, in what is known as the Middle Belt of Nigeria. His father worked in construction, having not completed high school, and his mother stayed at home raising their six children, of which Walter was the eldest. He attended boarding school, considered a privilege in Nigeria, for most of his life. A middle school placement exam suggested that he pursue medicine, but he initially resisted "because everyone in the class wanted to be a doctor." After convincing arguments from his family that his personal characteristics and compassion were well-suited for a career in medicine, he changed his mind. Immediately after high school graduation, he attended a 6-year medical school, Ebonyi State University. However, this was just the first step of the long journey to fulfilling his dreams of becoming a psychiatrist.
In 2007, after completing medical school and working at a teaching hospital five hours from his hometown, Dr. Kalu learned that he won one of the few coveted spots in a visa lottery to move to the United States and establish permanent residency. "It was sheer luck, against all odds," he says, "There are probably millions of people all over the world applying for less than 1,000 spots." He could not even travel back to his home city to say goodbye to his parents for fear that something may interfere with his travel plans. Dr. Kalu shares a common Nigerian saying that when someone has a big smile on their face, one might ask in jest, "Did you win the visa lottery to America?" That's exactly what happened for Dr. Kalu. "It was just really exciting! Just too overboard," he says. "I didn't know how hard it was going to be. The excitement of going to America doesn't make you think about some of the difficulties." The first obstacle was finding a U.S. citizen to sponsor him, which was a difficult task given that he didn't know anyone in the United States. A friend who was completing residency in America helped him connect with a lady who had previously immigrated from Nigeria and was willing to take a chance in helping a young doctor that she did not know. In the meantime, Dr. Kalu saved up all the money he had and flew to New York City with only "a Reebok bag with a few clothes in it," to become an American citizen. He spent two months in New York City with a former classmate, but because of the high cost of living, his friend suggested that he move to Houston, Texas. Why Houston? "Because my friend suggested it and thought it would be cheaper," he says. So, he flew to Houston and rented an apartment the next day. "The first 3 months was really hard. I didn't have a car, so I would walk around the city looking for a job." Despite being a medical school graduate, he first found employment in a grocery store. He saved enough money to buy himself a car and then worked on furthering his career. He enrolled in EMT school during the day, and found work as a security guard at night. He went on to complete EMT school and work as an EMT, but continued to study for the next five years as he completed all three USMLE board exams in preparation to apply for residency.
While Dr. Kalu was always interested in medicine, his passion for psychiatry was a later development. After taking Step 3, a priest at his church suggested that he read "Man's Search for Meaning," by Viktor Frankl, a story about a neuropsychiatrist who had survived the Holocaust. "This is just who I want to be," he thought, and his dreams of being a psychiatrist were born. He started applying to residency, which was another challenge as he had completed medical school years prior. The first two years, he did not match. "The hardest thing," says Dr. Kalu, "was not knowing if I could pursue this career that I'd always dreamt about." The third year, he applied and interviewed at the KU School of Medicine-Wichita, among others. "When I came to Wichita," he says, "I felt it was a close-knit program, which endeared me to it. When I came back for the second-look interview, I thought, 'This is where I really want to be.' He ranked the program #1 and was thrilled to find out on Match Day that he would be moving to Wichita, Kansas. How does he feel about his decision four years later, as graduation looms on the horizon? "Given the reputation of the program, I knew it was a good program, but I never comprehended the depth of training I would get. The level of training I've gotten so far has blown my mind away." Dr. Kalu has been a model resident throughout his four years spent here, with a genuine caring for his patients and work ethic that all residents should aspire to. In addition to serving as an excellent role model for junior residents, he has won the Excellence in Inpatient Care award, Resident Team Player award (twice), and the G.E.M. award (for Going the Extra Mile). What has Dr. Kalu's favorite part of residency been? "Having to care for the patients," he says. "The little things you do make a difference in someone's life."
Dr. Kalu has since been back to visit his family, six years after he initially left Nigeria to become a permanent citizen. "This is the story of a lot of immigrants in this country," he says. What is the biggest lesson learned through his journey? "Just keep waking up. Don't look at your immediate struggle. Find a way to make yourself better. Your goal might not be within immediate reach. It took me years, but I'm finally getting to do what I love." I've watched Dr. Kalu complete residency with grace and a calm, collected demeanor at all times. He maintains an air of genuine optimism at all times. When others complain about the rigors of resident life, he is known to smile and say, "It's not that bad!" and mean it. While his plans after graduation as yet remain undetermined, I am sure he will be an asset to whichever community and patients he chooses to serve. After the rest of our classmates have left for fellowship and there are now two of us remaining as PGY-4s, I cannot adequately express my admiration of Dr. Kalu's developing professional skill set and gratitude for our friendship. Thank you, Dr. Kalu, for the privilege of completing the last leg of your journey alongside you.