2012 Alumni Award Winner

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Nyako

Richard A. Nyako
MS ’71, PhD ’72, MD ’76 
Richard Nyako, MS, PhD, MD acquired polio as a toddler and crawled until he was nine. That was probably the last time he was held back by anything.
 
This year’s recipient of the distinguished alumnus award, Nyako says he got his perseverance from his father, who worked long hours tending the family’s cocoa fields, while also growing corn, rice and nuts to make ends meet year round in their native Ghana.

“I remember in those days there were lots of childhood diseases,” Nyako recalls. “When I had high fevers, my father would gather me up and walk five miles on a dirt road to the closest hospital. They did everything they could to keep me alive, but there was my legs. I remember measles, whooping cough, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. Malaria was a big problem.” The health needs of his countrymen remained fresh in his mind through a long career. 

Young Richard’s way out was his innate intelligence, curiosity and work ethic, which was recognized early. He was taught to read and write by his older brothers, who also got him interested in arts and crafts such as making backing pans, repairing clocks and painting murals at the local school. He later graduated at the top of his class and had one of the highest SAT scores the American embassy had ever seen. That helped land him in the United States on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his legendary
“I Have a Dream Speech” in August 1963.

Nyako remembers that he had one dollar and 10 cents in his pocket, but had already been accepted to attend Elmhurst College. There he worked in the library and the cafeteria and as a summer camp counselor. He graduated in 1967.

“I’m sure there are many amongst you that were accepted into several medical schools and yet chose to come to the University of Illinois College of Medicine,” he told M1 students during the annual White Coat Ceremony. “I congratulate you for your good choice. The University of Illinois has been good to me and the education and training I received here has served me
well.”

NayakoA former mentor, Philip B. Gorelick, MD, MPH, now the medical director at Hauenstein Neuroscience Center at St. Mary’s Health Care, remembers Nyako as “one of the amazing success stories at UIC. Dr. Nyako overcame his medical disability through patience, faith, hard work and the added value of modern orthopedic surgery as he underwent many operations.”


Adds Adrienne Segovia, MD ’90 chair of the medical alumni council, “Dr. Nyako is an incredibly kind, thoughtful and soft-spoken man. The world would be a better place if there were more people like him in it. He is a physical manifestation of his passion, she said, “which is medicine and caring for the underserved. I don’t once remember him mentioning his disability.”

Nyako earned his PhD in biochemistry at UIC, then his medical degree.  He also completed his residency in neurology here. After working in and around Chicago for some years, Nyako took his practice to Tampa, FL in 1983. At the time, there were only three neurosurgeons and five neurologists in the area. There were no CT or MRI scanners, two neurodiagnostic centers and one rehabilitation center. Nyako was instrumental in bringing the needed diagnostic equipment and services to the Tampa area.

Retiring in 2002, he returned to his roots and started a foundation in Ghana.  Today, the foundation's Center for Neurology offers treatment for neurological disease and other medical conditions, minor surgery and neurological testing, such as EEG, EMG and nerve conduction studies, and physical and rehabilitation services.  "In the health care field in Ghana, neurological disorders are largely ignored," he told the White Coat Ceremony audience.  "The work and road ahead are difficult but we can succeed with the help of the people of Ghana and people like you who aspire to make this world a healthier place to live."