From Botswana to Black Lake First Nation, the sickness of strangers weighs on Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka like they were his own loved ones.
Easing the suffering of the sick is a binding thread across cultures and climates for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority medical health officer, whether he's battling HIV/AIDS in Africa, or COVID-19 in the farthest reaches of northern Saskatchewan.
“These are people that I can relate to and I share the weight with,” he says. “It’s so dear to me to see the burdens of disease, and (individuals') mental health suffering, alleviated.”
Ndubuka is a top public health official whose name has become known in the fight to control COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic.
But he has never forgotten his past as a family physician or the warm, personal touch that friends say has helped him forge lasting relationships with communities in Saskatchewan’s far north, half a world away from where he grew up.
Ndubuka was born to the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria. He set his sights high growing up, but he also uncovered the ties between communities in his home country and Canada.
"Parents (have) very high expectations. You're either a physician, or you're a lawyer or an engineer," he says.
"But for the most part, I think I had passion to impact people's lives in a positive way. And that was really my main drive."
In 2004, he moved to Botswana with the idea of continuing work as a family doctor. He appreciated his time there, and it's not hard to understand why. General practice suits someone like Ndubuka, who has a wide, disarming smile that's ideal for calming nervous patients.
“His biggest weakness is his heart,” says Prince Albert medical health officer Dr. Khami Chokani, whose family has formed a close bond with Ndubuka’s.
“Nnamdi has the ability to connect and understand. I strongly believe (his) spirituality is the driver there, where you can consider a person’s human side.”
Some would take advantage of that concern for others, but his empathy and his leadership are inseparable, Chokani says.
“He doesn’t lie to you. He tells you it’s going to be hard, but he puts it in a nice way that makes you ready. He prepares you.”
While Ndubuka worked as a family doctor in Botswana and put those skills to use, he had a lingering thought. He wondered if there were ways to prevent the patients filing in everyday from needing medical care in the first place.
"How do we empower people to also think of prevention?" he says.
Those questions drew him deeper into the world of public health. He wanted to be an advocate for better policies and more robust population health. While he was in Botswana, Ndubuka had an early taste of those interests when he contributed to large international research projects on HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis.
Those projects included aiming to find a way to stop pregnant women from passing on the diseases to their children, and he threw himself into the work. As Ndubuka prepared to leave after eight years, he began to see the results as the infection rates for pregnant women dropped from two digits to one.
His interests led him to complete a master's and a PhD in public health in South Africa while he continued to work. As he completed his studies, he also had a family to consider.
That's the reason he ultimately made a jump across continents to move to Saskatchewan, he says.
"At some point in your life, it's no longer about you. It's about your family, it's about your kids. You want to make sure you secure their future where they have a better education, a better career, and (can be) responsible within the community."
Ndubuka says he and his wife chose Canada because they saw it as a multicultural society that could provide those opportunities. He soon found a job opening at the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority and was coordinating with family friends who lived in Saskatchewan to help the family move.
Those early days in Saskatchewan were also a culture shock, he says.
Learning about local culture and traditions took some time, but colleagues and family friends eased the transition. One of the hardest parts was finding the proper winter gear as the mercury dipped, but the cold never swayed the newcomers.
"If we work hard, we will achieve our Canadian dream," he says of the moving period.
Ndubuka sees a wealth of similarities between health conditions in northern Saskatchewan and Botswana, ranging from racism and discrimination to housing conditions. Other parallels include poverty, infectious diseases, lack of access to quality health services and social injustice.
"Most of us immigrants, particularly from Africa, relate quite well with (Indigenous peoples)," he says.
Those disparities reared up in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic struck Saskatchewan. Ndubuka has spent 18 months on the front lines of the public health emergency, trying to crush the virus in isolated communities where a dearth of housing has caused case counts to repeatedly skyrocket.
"When you walk from the office and get home, you're still working, go to bed (and) you're still working. It's really tough," he says.
It's his passion to alleviate the toll on a person's mental health that's brought on by illness. That path has taken him into more unexpected places, leading him to the presidency of the Canadian Association of Nigerian Physicians and Dentists and other leadership roles in Prince Albert, where he lives.
That's where he can indulge his other love: soccer. As president of the Prince Albert Youth Soccer Association, Ndubuka has been thrust into roles ranging from refereeing and coaching to calming concerned parents.
He is never too busy for a phone call or to coach young soccer players, association officer manager Mitzi Pytlak says.
Even during the heights of the pandemic, he always picks up the phone for any issue, she says.
Pytlak, who's been involved in the association for about 28 years, first met him when one of Ndubuka's three children joined a local soccer team as a young child. Since then, she's got to know Ndubuka as someone who takes fairness seriously, but whose warmth endears him easily to new people, she says.
"He has a really big heart. Inclusivity is really important to him — to include all the newcomers, people that can't afford to play soccer, things like that. He wants everybody to join."
Ndubuka plays the game himself, and the sport has been an escape from some of the most stressful parts of his work. He treasures seeing a child learning new skills and using the sport to understand life lessons like personal professionalism and teamwork. Nothing could be more fulfilling, he says.
His faith and family have only become more important supports during trying times when case numbers are at their most stubborn, or vaccination rates stall behind full herd immunity despite his best efforts.
Those trials aren't new — and neither are his supports — but they've brought to bear how intertwined he has become with his chosen home, and how his personal story prepared him for it.
"This is where I have to be. I'm not going anywhere else. I'm working with communities and helping to change the narrative."
Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix