When Dr. Ngozi Ezike was a baby, she took her first steps at seven months. When her pediatrician explained to her family that he'd never seen a baby walk so early, Ezike's proud dad--a Nigerian immigrant to Los Angeles--set his sights on his daughter becoming the first doctor in their family. Sure enough, she grew up to become just what her dad had dreamed, and specializing in internal medicine and pediatrics.
In June, Ezike stepped into her new role as President and CEO of Sinai Chicago--the city's largest private safety net healthcare system and a partner with JUF--serving 1.5 million people on Chicago's West and Southwest Sides. She replaced Karen Teitelbaum, who served Sinai Chicago for 15 years.
You might recognize Ezike. For three years, including during the bulk of the COVID pandemic, she served as Illinois' "Top Doc," the Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). Helping to guide the state through the worst pandemic in a century, she was known as a strong, empathetic, and trusted presence alongside Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
A longtime champion for safety net healthcare systems, Ezike has dedicated her professional life to advancing health equity and working with underserved communities in Chicago.
A lot of "firsts" modify Ezike's name. She was the first Black woman appointed to lead the Illinois Department of Public Health. Now, she is the first Black woman--and the first physician--to lead Sinai Chicago. A week into her new position, Ezike sat down for an interview with
Q. What attracted you to Sinai Chicago?
A. Sinai understands that healthcare does not just happen within the four walls, but that there are social determinants of health (the economic and social conditions that influence differences n health status) that play a huge role…And we don't do what I call 'the wallet biopsy'-where we wait and see what insurance you have before deciding what care you're going to get.
How has Sinai responded to COVID?
Sinai was an incredible player during the pandemic. I'm super proud of that and I'm proud that we are preparing for whatever might be around the corner. That means empowering the community and getting people literate in health topics so they can take care of themselves…so when adversity comes, it doesn't disproportionately hit people in our communities.
What is your vision for Sinai Chicago?
You have two ears and one mouth because you have to listen twice as much as you talk. I'm definitely in the listening phase right now… I want to promote the health of people in the communities we serve, and I want to see if we can narrow that age lifespan for people who live in certain zip codes versus more affluent zip codes.
How can the Chicago Jewish community and JUF be a partner to Sinai Chicago?
The Chicago Jewish community is a lifeline to Sinai Chicago, and JUF is a tremendous partner that any health system would be so blessed to have.
Why have you dedicated your career to pursuing healthcare equity?
My father always reminded me of the adage 'to whom much is given, much is expected.' I wanted to go back into the communities, similar to the community I came up in, and show them that 'I'm from a community just like yours-I even look like you…and I can give you care in a completely culturally competent way, understanding some of your struggles.
What did your job leading public health department during the pandemic teach you?
The power of going beyond what you think are your natural limits is empowering-it's almost like a cape for me now. If I knew there was going to be a pandemic, I'm not sure I would have taken on the role…but I got to surprise myself and see what the power of the team can do. The [IDPH] team was phenomenal.
You're a trailblazer--the first Black woman to lead both the IDPH and now Sinai Chicago. Is that a burden or an honor for you?
In a way it's sad that there are so many doors or ceilings that haven't already been shattered. But I'm happy to carry the mantle and be the first. More importantly, I need to make sure that I create opportunities so that there is the second and the third and the fourth.