The journey of Dr. Bunmi Okanlami from her birthplace in Nigeria to her appointment as the chair of palliative care at Indiana University South Bend is the stuff of movies. It has drama, heartbreak, adventure, and joy.
Let’s start at the beginning. Born to parents who were educators, she was the eldest of six children. At the age of three she would pretend she was going to the hospital for work. Once in school, there was no question she would be a physician, and she had the full support of her family. “My family never said there was anything that I couldn’t do,” she says looking back. She graduated as a doctor at the age of 22.
Bunmi met her husband Femi in medical school in Nigeria. Their plan was to go to graduate school in the United States where they both would specialize in pediatric medicine—Bunmi in critical care and he in neonatology. They were raising two children at the time. She got a fellowship in Pediatric Critical Care Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore after completing her pediatric residency at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC. Femi got his training at Howard University and Georgetown University Hospitals.
They had never heard of South Bend, Indiana when they were recruited together in a collaboration between Memorial Hospital and St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center. Both hospitals were in need of their specialties in pediatrics. On the flight home from their first visit to South Bend, they both felt an unexpected connection to South Bend. They were particularly interested in helping develop a children’s hospital in South Bend. Femi moved first with the children while Bunmi finished a two-year commitment in Mississippi that allowed her green card to cover her family. She has been in South Bend ever since.
They were a power couple in medicine in the community. Together they contributed to the growth of pediatric intensive care in the community so that fewer children were being transferred to Indianapolis or Chicago. They both knew South Bend needed a children’s hospital. “It took 20 years,” Bunmi says.
While she was trying to move the plans for Memorial Children’s Hospital forward and serving as medical director for the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at Memorial Hospital, she decided to get an Executive Master of Business Administration degree at the Mendoza School at the University of Notre Dame. “When I first came to South Bend, I was an independent contractor,” she said. “I had never run a medical practice and learned a lot of the business side of medicine on the job. I also felt that in order to participate at management levels representing medical staff and advocating for patients, one could use an MBA.” Despite her hectic schedule, hospital work, and family obligations, she completed the program. Then her world started falling apart.
Her son Feranmi was in his 3rd year of orthopedic surgery residency at Yale, when he had a swimming accident and broke his neck. It was a Fourth of July weekend and she couldn’t get away to see him because she was on call and had no one else to cover the PICU. “Never again,” she said. Her husband died unexpectedly in 2015. “A part of me died,” she said.
Despite being in a wheelchair her son is a doctor and serves on the faculty at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her daughter Peju, is a lawyer. And Bunmi is now the chair of Palliative Care at IU South Bend.
The chair of Palliative care was created when the Vera Z. Dwyer Charitable Trust endowed the position. “My job is to educate the public about palliative care and help them understand that it is different from hospice care,” she says. “I’ve been involved in palliative care and end-of-life care with children throughout my entire clinical career.”
She teaches students in the Vera Z. Dwyer College of Health Sciences at IU South Bend about their role in a palliative care team. Palliative care is specialized medical care for people living with serious illness, such as cancer, to provide an extra layer of support. “It’s a natural part of comprehensive health care,” she says. “It needs to be taught early in the curriculum and then again at the end.” Most doctors only learn about palliative care after they have graduated medical school. Everyone benefits when palliative care is introduced early in the course of a patient’s illness alongside curative therapies. “Hospice is palliative care at the end of life,” she says.
Although patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are not typical palliative care patients, the separation the pandemic has created, where families cannot be with their loved ones in the hospital, highlights the need for people to have conversations about their wishes early and frequently with their family and physicians. Carrying out their desires and choices for medical care and intervention is a critical component of palliative care, Bunmi explained.
Bunmi is happy in her position in the Vera Z. Dwyer College of Health Sciences at IU South Bend. Her first goal is to assess the current state of palliative care in the region and determine best-practices throughout the country, so she can bring them here. The pandemic has changed how she’s carrying out her research, but it’s not stopped her. “Before the pandemic, I planned to meet people face-to-face,” she said. “Now I’m using Zoom meetings and telephone conversations to gather the information.”
In addition to her new role at IU South Bend Bunmi teaches Pediatric Fundamentals of Critical Care Support (PFCCS) which is in demand around the world. She is a strong supporter and past board president of A Rosie Place for Children, the non-profit organization she helped create in South Bend that is the first, and only, specialty hospital in Indiana exclusively for children who are medically fragile.
It was meant to be,” she says. After a career at the bedside in critical care, there could not be a better teacher of palliative care for the healthcare providers of tomorrow.