Dr. Uchenna Lizmay Umeh: The Power of Flexibility; How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic
Self-belief is Key: — After graduating from residency at Howard University Hospital, I found myself in a predicament. I had a J-1 student exchange visa and no job. I tried everything in my power to get a job. We searched high and low, and found nothing. No one was willing to hire a pediatrician with my visa type. So, I ended up opening a practice in a rural area of South Carolina with hardly any money for capital and no experience whatsoever. I was young, I was scared, I had a 9-month-old son in tow, and only my self-belief as my main tool. I went from one patient to 6 thousand patients, from one location to two locations, from two employees to 13 employees! I simply believed in myself and did it afraid. I showed up 100% each time, and it paid off!
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Uchenna Umeh, MD aka Dr. Lulu the Momatrician.
Dr. Lulu is a Nigerian-born pediatrician, and former lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force. In her spare time, she is also a bestselling author, TEDx and United Nations speaker, and a mindset and motivational life coach. After nearly 3 decades, she resigned from traditional pediatric practice in 2018 following suicides of a patient, several physician colleagues, and a serious attempt by a 7-year-old patient. She is CEO of TeenAlive.com and has now dedicated her life to life coaching and suicide prevention particularly in youth and fellow female physicians.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My pleasure! I like to say I was born, bred, buttered and slightly burned in Nigeria! The first of 6 children. My parents were middle class; my father retired as a 2-Star general in the Nigerian Air Force, and my mother retired as a banker. We are from the eastern part of Nigeria, and our tribe is Igbo. We moved around the country on account of the Air Force. I attended high school at an all-girl boarding school. Medical school and high school were both in the northern part of the country. Moving around the country gave me the opportunity to meet people from the different tribes of Nigeria and learn their languages. Today I speak 8 different international and national languages and working on my 9th, Mandarin!
I have great memories of my childhood. I come from very large families; my paternal grandfather had 8 wives, and my maternal grandfather had 2, so my entire family can literally make up a small village! My fondest memories are those of my family spending the holidays in the village with all my cousins!
Sadly, I was also sexually assaulted at the age of 9, bullied in elementary and high school, and raped in medical school. Yes, trauma even followed me into adulthood, and into my first marriage, and later at the workplace as a physician.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you BELIEVE it, you can BE it”. This is my most recent life lesson quote and the words literally came to fruition for me in 2020.
In December of 2019 I travelled to Nigeria for speaking engagements. At my first stop in Lagos, I visited a boutique to purchase some outfits. While they were being adjusted, I asked the designer to ensure that she made one particular blouse to fit right, because I was “planning on wearing it for my TEDx talk”. The lady asked me what a TEDx talk was, and I explained it to her as simply as I could. Upon returning to the United States later that month, I went back about my business.
Fast forward to the lockdown in March of 2020; while figuring out what my “lockdown legacy” would be, I decided to apply for a TEDx talk. I believed in my heart that this was going to be the year of my talk, I saw myself on the stage in my mind’s eye, and simply applied! As fortune would have it, I succeeded in landing multiple talks! My first one, TEDxAlief took place during the Labor Day weekend of 2020!
Yes, if we could only just believe, we can be.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I was born in 1969, so I was a teenager in the mid to late 80s. My father loved old movies and so did I.
Music is a very important part of my life, I grew up loving music, dancing and singing.
To date, I still love singing and dancing, and on a good day, you can catch me dancing live on my Facebook page, just because!
My favorite movies are thus musicals; The Sound of Music, and Summer Stock top the list. I love the colors, the storylines and the lightheartedness in each movie. The way the stories are intertwined with music is essentially how my entire life has been…a mixture of adventures, happiness and music!
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
In 2018, I quit my job as a traditional pediatrician to launch my speaking and writing career, that was prior to the pandemic. Soon after my resignation, I picked up a part time gig with a national telehealth company and was relying on that for income. In August of 2019, I launched a solo direct primary care pediatric practice or DPC. A DPC practice is a membership-based cash-based practice similar to concierge medicine. In my practice, I focus only on at-risk (mostly suicidal) teens.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
When the pandemic hit, most of my patients cancelled their monthly memberships, and I found myself looking at an empty office. I subsequently canceled my 2-year lease and switched the few patients remaining to virtual visits.
I first created an online course on book writing called: You Should Write Your Book Now!
Then I launched my online course on controlling anxiety, called; Controlling Your Anxiety: Becoming the Master of Your Thoughts.
Then I launched a 6-week parent coaching course titled: Parenting Without Yelling which basically hit the ground running, to the tune of 90 clients at first launch!
I expanded my podcast (Suicide Pages with Dr. Lulu) which focuses on suicide in youth to include episodes about physician wellness in response to the increase in physician suicide.
I also started doing more freelance writing about youth and physician suicide on as many platforms as would have me.
Other courses I have launched include: Communicating with Your Teen, Your Child and Love Languages, and Bullying 101.
I enrolled in a nationally accredited coaching program in October of 2020 to become formally certified as a life coach, and I already have paying clients.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
Following the success of my books and speaking engagements, particularly my TEDx talk, I realized I could not only use my experiences, but also my expertise in the work I was already doing to help even more people.
Since I self-published my books, I thought it might be a good idea to teach other people how to write and self-publish their own books too.
After announcing my TEDx success, people wanted to know how I did it, so I created a course called: 5 Secrets to Landing Your TEDx Talk.
The bottom line is I know I am creative, and I can harness my creativity and put my ideas to work. I figured if other people can do it, so can I, and if I can create it, then I can monetize it.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Each endeavor is thriving. I have the most success with my parent coaching, followed by the writing coaching, then the anxiety and mindset coaching. I am signing on new clients and growing. My life coaching business is the newest of them all and still in its infancy, but I already have 4 clients signed up 😊.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I come from a pretty large family and stand on shoulders of those that have gone before me. I cannot honestly name one single person who got me where I am. But, I can say that I was inspired by other physicians in the entrepreneurial space, my children for keeping me on my toes, my wife for believing in me, my extended family for lending me their shoulders to stand tall and strong on, God in His infinite wisdom for blessing me with creativity and insight, and then myself for heeding the call to pivot and not waiting on anyone to do the work for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I have had a multitude, but one that comes to mind is the night in May of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, when a marked police vehicle accompanied two of my sons (who had been out jogging) home. Mind you, we have lived in our current neighborhood for over 10 years, and my sons all went to school here. That night, I cried my eyes out as I wrote a blog post titled: “15 Commandments on Teaching Your Children About Race Relations” which posted for the month of June. The blog went semi viral with over 1600 views. One reader commented, “this will make a good book”, and I took that comment and ran with it. One month later, on July 25th, 2020, my most recent book: “How to Teach Your Children About Racism” (Amazon) was born! The book has 21 commandments! I hit the Amazon bestseller list and it has been making it’s rounds as a recommendation for diversity and inclusion in many organizations around the US
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Self-belief is Key:
After graduating from residency at Howard University Hospital, I found myself in a predicament. I had a J-1 student exchange visa and no job. I tried everything in my power to get a job. We searched high and low, and found nothing. No one was willing to hire a pediatrician with my visa type. So, I ended up opening a practice in a rural area of South Carolina with hardly any money for capital and no experience whatsoever. I was young, I was scared, I had a 9-month-old son in tow, and only my self-belief as my main tool. I went from one patient to 6 thousand patients, from one location to two locations, from two employees to 13 employees! I simply believed in myself and did it afraid. I showed up 100% each time, and it paid off!
Be Consistent and Show Up 100%:
Consistency is crucial. It is the meat of anything. When you do the work and become successful, no one sees the bottom of the iceberg. No one sees all the blood, sweat and tears you put into the business daily. But you do. When I first quit my pediatrician job to speak, I doubted myself a lot, but I realized that if I showed up daily and worked on my belief system, and did the work that was required, I would succeed. So, I got to work, and showed up with my game face daily, providing value and service in my niche space. I have now become the go-to gal for youth suicide prevention. I would not have gotten there without consistency and self-belief.
Also known as self-love, I have discovered that most entrepreneurs struggle with self-love. The ability to have empathy for ones’ self and want to help. This is often lacking in most entrepreneurs who might want to work themselves to the bone. Working day in and day out. But at what cost? How much is your health worth? When I was in private practice in Lancaster South Carolina, I would pride myself in the fact that I could see 40 to 60 patients a day, and barely rest. Ultimately, that cost me my marriage and my relationship with my kids.
Entrepreneurs struggle with allowing ourselves to take a break or take a day off. We work all day and all night, sometimes getting consumed in the work and hardly coming up for air. I struggled with this. As a self-employed physician, with my own private practice, I worked day and night and barely took breaks. One day, my eldest son had a piano recital and was okay with me missing it, because they were so used to me not being there most of the time. That hurt me so much that I decided I needed to start taking time off to do other things that were important in my life.
Your Staff Are Your Most Important Asset:
When I owned and operated my private practice in South Carolina, one of the activities I eventually added to our schedule was a half day on Fridays. My (all-female) staff and I would just chill and chat after our weekly staff meetings. It quickly became a huge deal. My girls and I would bond over stories and laughs. We even went on vacation together: Las Vegas, The Bahamas, Myrtle Beach, etc.
I quickly realized that I needed to treat them as well as I could, both for my personal success, and because I realized that happy employees mean a progressive and sustainable business. Workplace toxicity is one of the common causes of anxiety, poor job satisfaction and other mental health challenges. I was committed to not contributing to any form of mental anguish of my staff. In my 13 years as the owner and CEO of Children First Medical Center, the shortest duration of time I had an employee was 8 years. That was a thing of pride for me.
Don’t Quit, the Best Way to Spell Success is FAILURE:
I have failed multiple times in my life. You will have bad days! That is a sure banker! You will FAIL, that is a given. I have had bad days, weeks, months and even years! At one point, I even filed bankruptcy. I have learnt that most people do not see the base of the iceberg (all the failures), they only see the tip (success). After my first marriage failed and I sold my beloved private practice, I felt like a complete failure. But time, hard work and focus helped me regain my composure and forge ahead.
In my life coach training, I am learning that one’s mindset is critical for success. I have thus learned to embrace the failure and use it as a propellant and fuel into the success ahead. I realize that the growth occurs during the failure and during the challenging times. So, be prepared to fail. Be prepared to fall, but when you do, make sure you fall on your back, because as long as you can see the sky, you can rise back up and thrive!
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
First off, I avoid news as much as possible, because I know they are mostly going to increase my angst. However, if and when I do listen, I am very careful not to allow negative intrusive thoughts into my head anymore. Especially because I have struggled with suicidal ideations in the past.
Humans by nature stack thoughts, and sometimes we allow them to overcome us.
So, what I do is ask myself if the current thought serves me or not, knowing that thoughts create feelings which in turn create actions which ultimately create our results.
I have learned to apply the following 3-As in order to control the effects of my thoughts.
Acknowledge my thoughts and never stack them up or push them away.
Analyze my thoughts for veracity. How true are these thoughts? Am I truly not good enough? Do these thoughts really serve me?
Act based on the results of the analysis. And when I make a decision, I stick to it.
Be honest and vulnerable with myself, and give myself permission to change my thoughts when necessary. What I have found is that quite often, I am the only person in my way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Without a doubt, it would be the 5Ss: Stop the Shame Silence and Stigma of Suicide
Suicide rates have increased more than 32% since the pandemic. And these are only those we know about. Most suicide deaths are either not reported or are mis-classified as accidents or overdoses. We are losing our loved ones every 20 seconds. Yes, the World Health Organization (W.H.O) predicted that by the year 2020, we shall have one suicide every 20 seconds! And that number as we know is based on grossly underreported statistics. I would love to see a suicide-free world, and I am going to do everything in my power to achieve that.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
He is known to create and give opportunities to upcoming and relatively unknown actors and actresses! I would love to meet him and tell him about my plan to convert my second book into a documentary.
My second book is called “A Teen’s Life: Looking at Teens’ Lives Through Their Struggles”. It is a book that sheds much needed light on the anatomy of youth suicide. It chronicles the lives of 13 fictitious teens from across the globe struggling to make sense of the lemons life has dealt them. The book examines the global burden of suicide, the stories of the children, and what you and I can do to help.
My most precious dream is to shoot a documentary that sheds light on teen/youth suicide especially as it concerns minorities and people of color. Most people are not aware that African American youth aged 5 to 12 are twice as likely as their White counterparts to die by suicide, or that LGBTQ youth have the highest rate of homelessness and suicide amongst all youth, or that Native American and Hispanic youth (indigenous youth) all have a high rate of suicide attempts and suicide.
I would like the world to know for instance the roles, child marriage, homophobia, immigration, religion, absent father syndrome, bullying, toxic relationships, sexual assault, etc. (all forms of trauma) play in the suicides of our youth. I aim to correct the narrative that mental illness is the leading reason for suicide in our youth, my argument is mental anguish from accumulated trauma is at the crux of most suicides.
I know that no documentary currently exists exploring this issue in that population, and I would like to spear-head it.
How can our readers follow you online?
Appointments for Life Coaching: https://www.calendly.com/drlulu
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!