As a child in Nigeria, third-year medical student Khadijat Perkins suffered through several life-threating bouts with malaria.
“I felt that I had the most dreadful childhood memories, unaware that at the same time, many young children in my country never live long enough to create such memories,” she said. “I am from Nigeria, where one in six children die before the age of five due to the absence of timely, quality health care.”
That’s how Perkins, whose given name is Adegbemisola Khadijat Aregbe, described herself when she applied for admission to the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Now the immediate past president of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) at UTHSC, Perkins is working to bring quality health care to those in the Memphis community who might otherwise not have access to it. In February, Perkins led a group of College of Medicine students in staging a health fair at the UTHSC Health Hub in Uptown. The group, who call themselves Healthier Memphis, also includes Callie Walls, Taylor Dent, Cassidy Lounsbury, Alaina Rule, and Gabrielle Napper.
The Healthier Memphis group is working with the Memphis Medical District Collaborative (MMDC) to hold a free Wellness Festival Saturday, September 16, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Morris Park, 747 Poplar. The event is open to the community and features health care services and resources, live music, and wellness activities.
“This festival was born from a group of young doctors and medical students who wished to meet patients well before a health crisis,” said Latasha Harris, MMDC’s director of workforce strategies. “With the support of Medical District partners, like UTHSC, the festival was curated to address some of the health and other factors that affect daily life.”
Perkins, which is her married name, recalls caring for others at the young age of 12, after her father, an accountant, was transferred to Katsina, a state in Northern Nigeria. She said her family had traveled to a small rural village almost two hours away from a developed city to provide community service. “What took me by surprise on this trip wasn’t the amount of people who lived in one hut, but the number of young children who came with their equally young mothers to get food,” she said. “These young mothers were having multiple births in their homes, far away from access to clean water, electricity, and health care. In that moment, I remembered my life-threating bouts with malaria and how access to some form of health care saved my life. Had circumstances been different and I was from this small village, I would have most likely perished. So, it was there in that small village, that I developed a desire to become a physician in order to provide lifesaving health care for the people of underserved marginalized communities.”
LaTonya Washington, MD, past president of the Bluff City Medical Society, said she first met Perkins during her interview for admission to UTHSC. “I was extremely impressed with her tenacity and dedication to achieving her goals,” said Dr. Washington, who has since mentored Perkins through the Project STAR program in the College of Medicine. “Despite me being the mentor and she the mentee, we encourage each other in our journeys. Her dedication to service will undoubtedly lead her to a successful career as a cardiac surgeon.”
Perkins lived with her family in Abuja, Nigeria, until she was 14. “I made an early move to England to make sure that the transition to try to get into medical school over there would be easier.” She completed her first year of study in biomedical sciences at King’s College London, then went back to Nigeria for a year when she could not afford to continue living in England. She moved to the United States in 2015 to finish her bachelor’s degree in health sciences at East Tennessee State University, which offered her a scholarship, and later a master’s degree in chemistry.
“For me, given the privilege and opportunity to live in different parts of the world, one thing that I had always noticed that doesn’t really change among all types of people is health care, health, and access to care,” she said. “I’ve always been very passionate about ensuring that health care access and health care itself is not just a privilege that certain people have, but a basic right. So, in everything I do with volunteering, a lot of my passion is related to bridging that gap in health care access.”
President of the Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery Interest Group at UTHSC, Perkins aspires to be a pediatric cardiac surgeon with a long-term global focus. “I’m trying at the moment to set up a foundation in Nigeria that helps young women who are interested in STEM to get them through education and to also help people who need medical services,” she said. “When you think about the access to cardiac care globally, it’s abysmal. So, for me, that is something that I envision myself, and how it can impact people is not only am I going to be helping people, I’m also going to be giving people and cultures and generations a chance of life, because impacting children means you impact the future.”
Saturday’s community wellness fair is the result of her passion for expanding access to health care. As a Regional Alliance Leadership Development intern through the SNMA, she was tasked with designing a project and wanted to focus on health care access and advocacy. “Then, I came up with a team of a few members of my class, who I knew were passionate about health care access and were willing to work toward making sure this would come to fruition.” The group reached out to the UTHSC Health Hub earlier this year and the MMDC this summer.
Claudette Shephard, MD, associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the College of Medicine, said Perkins exemplifies the life of a servant leader. “She is compassionate about her calling and seeks every opportunity to help those in need,” Dr. Shephard said. “Her leadership skills are well demonstrated in the way she organized our local chapter of the Student National Medical Association, seeking every opportunity to minister to the community and reach out to students interested in medical careers. She has been recognized at the regional and national level for her leadership.”
Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Admissions Catherine R. Womack, MD, said Perkins is invested in giving back to the community. “In addition to her community engagement, she serves as the vice president of Student Affairs and works to mentor and lead her peers and those students in classes below to ensure that all are supported as they progress through our rigorous curriculum.”
Perkins is married to Alec Perkins, who recently finished his PhD in sports physiology. She had their first child, a daughter, a few weeks ago, but plans to be at Saturday’s wellness event.
She said she and the Healthier Memphis team are grateful to member Callie Walls, who has been instrumental in planning the second health fair in conjunction with MMDC. “Her passion for service to our community has shone through in the way she has dedicated her time and effort to ensure that not only do we have another fair, but an improved quality of service to our community.”
Perkins shares a message of perseverance with others who, like herself, have set their sights on a stretch goal.
“I applied to medical school three times to be able to get this now,” she said. “I think if you have a goal and a dream and passion, sometimes it might seem easier to want to give up, but keep pushing because you will find the perfect place for you. I truly believe that UTHSC was the perfect place for me, from the members of the community, the Bluff City Medical Society who have been very supportive to me, to my classmates, to mentors that I’ve met here, and to be able to serve the community. I think that I am just blessed.”