Anezi Uzendu, MD
After his own cardiac arrest, this cardiology trainee set a personal goal to improve care in his community.
Anezi Uzendu, MD, is a cardiovascular research fellow at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, MO. Born in St. Louis, MO, to immigrant parents, Uzendu grew up in both Nigeria and the United States before completing a combined BA/MD program at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. He trained in internal medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), cardiology at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, and interventional cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Following his own cardiac arrest as an internal medicine resident, Uzendu pivoted toward providing education and awareness about CPR and AED use. He founded the organization Make BLS Basic in 2019 to bridge the disparities in knowledge he observed in his community. Today, his research goals focus on cardiac arrest outcomes, and he uses his powerful story of survival to not only give perspective to his colleagues and patients, but also seize opportunities in life.
What prompted you to want to do a research fellowship and what are you focusing on?
During my internal medicine residency, like a week or two before the cardiology match, I suffered a cardiac arrest. I was already obviously on my way to doing cardiology, but that prompted an interest in cardiac arrest in general, and then over the years, I started to realize some of the disparities in bystander CPR, lack of AED availability, and just how poor outcomes were. From there, I wanted to figure out how could I leverage being a cardiologist and also being a patient who has dealt with cardiac arrest. I wanted to be able to go back to the community and figure out ways to improve outcomes for other people.
What was it like going from doctor to patient and how did that experience transform you into the physician you are today?
I found it interesting just how hard it is to be a patient. Being on the other side of the stethoscope was completely different. For me, it was not just being a patient needing routine visits or having an ailment that was kind of minor. It was a critical event requiring ICU care. The toll that took on me and my family definitely helped change my perspective as to how we treat patients, what patients really go through, and being more mindful of patient autonomy when we're trying to make decisions and improve shared decision-making. It's hard to be a patient. It's hard to be in the hospital. It's hard to wait for appointments and hard to wait and not know the results of a test.
As far as the experience itself, it was crazy. As a third-year internal medicine resident, I had gone through all my rotations and was a senior on the team. I had performed a lumbar puncture in the afternoon then went to the local Gold's Gym to play pickup basketball. Supposedly I was having a great game, and then I just collapsed. There were people there that knew CPR, and there was an AED available. They used it multiple times. EMS came. They also used the AED multiple times and continued CPR. I was taken to a local hospital maybe about 5 minutes away, and I was still in cardiac arrest. From what's documented, they did another 13 rounds of CPR and then went to the cath lab, and then they had the hard decision of trying to figure out if I was stable enough to even get to a larger facility. They called my mom and my mom talked to some people at my internal medicine program. Later that night, they transferred me to UAB, fully knowing that there's about a 10% chance of being discharged from the hospital alive after having an out-of-hospital card arrest. I got excellent care there. My family got excellent care, just being supported through having a sick son in the ICU. After a few days, I woke up. I don't remember a week or so of my life, but by time I started to realize what was going on, I was incrementally getting better. The first couple days, I didn't remember my address. But still, the first thing that was on my mind, crazy enough, was the cardiology fellowship match.
I'd submitted my rank list, but I couldn’t remember if I had. I remember being in the ICU, texting my friends: “Hey do you guys remember if I submitted?” And this is literally the day after I was extubated. The night before the official cardiology match, I was having conversations about even being able to go on to do a cardiological fellowship. What would that look like? Should I just withdraw from the match right now? But we decided to continue and see how things went, and we gave me the best chance to continue on with the life I'd hoped to live. The next day, in the ICU connected to a lidocaine drip, I opened up my match email and found out I'd matched to my number one choice, which was Ohio State.
At that point, I hadn't even walked yet. We didn't know if I'd be able to really finish the program. We didn't know what I'd be able to get to do. It's a miracle that I was able to do go on to fellowship and then interventional fellowship. I don’t think it was because I was strong or tough or mentally strong-willed or smart. None of those things could help me when I had a cardiac arrest. It was just that I benefited from people being around that knew CPR, that there was an AED available, and a community that prayed. That shouldn't be something that just kind of happens sporadically. Everyone that has a cardiac arrest should have the opportunity to be saved. My experience inspired my goal of making sure that basic life support (BLS) feels “basic.”
Tell us about your foundation, Make BLS Basic.
I want everyone in the community to feel like basic life support truly is basic, and I created a whole program around that. I'm really trying to engage with communities. A lot of neighborhoods like the ones that I grew up in and the one I had my cardiac arrest in have the lowest rates of bystander CPR. So I want to target those communities and equip them to save the people they love. It's not that people don't want to perform CPR, but rather that they were never equipped or really just don't know. That's really what sparked it. Most cardiac arrests, about two-thirds, happen at home. When you think about it, the person who loves this person the most that's around that would want to be able to save their life, but it's not happening. That's a failure on our part as the medical community to train people to be able to do so and so that's what I'm hoping to do.
Initially, I talked about my cardiac arrest more from a faith standpoint. But then I watched an NBA G-league player have a cardiac arrest and no one resuscitated him. It was horrific. I wanted to change things and make it better. And so from that from that point on, I really started trying to ask myself what I can do to contribute to the solution. Some of the early conversations I had were with Doug Drachman before I came to Mass General, and he thought it would be a great idea to really run with my passion. He was a great advocate and sponsor for the ideas I had and connected me with people that he thought might be able to help me. We secured some funding and partnership with the local American Heart Association (AHA) chapter and started a program training people in bystander CPR again in the communities that are traditionally socioeconomically disadvantaged. Then the pandemic happened, which actually exacerbated some of the disparities that we were seeing in cardiac arrest outcomes and bystander CPR. We transitioned the programs to being virtual and partnered with different people and organizations within the community to deliver virtual hands-only CPR training. I would tell a little bit about my story, what a cardiac arrest is, and the difference between that and a heart attack, and then we’d break into small groups and practice hands only CPR with portable mannequins. The MGH cardiology fellows and attendings would join in and lead small groups. It was great!
Have you continued this work in the Midwest?
We hope to. The original program was Boston-specific, so now I'm trying to figure out how to scale it. The rate-limiting step has always been the kits. They're $38 each, and so we have to figure out how to either find household items that could be substituted or different sources of funding to be able to get those kits. I’m hoping to try and make it a little larger to have broader impact and then extend to beyond a single city to get more people involved and try to save lives.
What are some of your other career goals?
I'll be finishing my program the summer of 2023, and the hope would be to go on to an academic institution. I still really enjoy being in the cath lab. It doesn't feel like work to me. Right now, I cover a local cath lab part-time, which is a blast. The cardiology group is phenomenal, and the lab staff and I get along very well. Any time I come, they play my favorite music genre, Afrobeat, and we just get to work.
One of the things I have realized as a shortcoming of, or at least impediment to, making Make BLS Basic reproducible or scalable was that I just didn't really know how to translate some of the work I was doing to a publication or how to harness some of the tools and resources that academia provides. A lot of my research program now has been truly understanding research methodology and how to write and how to translate what I'm doing into academic currency. I want to be able to leverage that into grants to be able to continue this work. I love being in the community—there's just something special about educating and being able to connect with people. I think that's really what makes medicine special.
My hope is to either join a cardiac arrest Resuscitation Center of Excellence or to create one. But really, I’d like to be at a place that engages with the community with EMS interventions, hospital interventions, and posthospital follow-up to provide excellent care all along that continuum. Finding an institution that either has that in place or where I can kind of create or contribute to that culture and improve community outcomes that way would be great. And then obviously alongside that, doing some of the Make BLS Basic work in that community and then hopefully nationally and maybe even internationally going forward.
What are you most looking forward to after you finish your training?
Honestly, I think the stability of being in one place, growing with one lab, growing with one team is appealing. I really love camaraderie, collegiality, and making connections with people. It's been my choice, but every single time I've had the chance to move in training, I have. I think it's been great in creating a large network and just meeting on people, but you do lose that day-to-day camaraderie. I’m looking forward to teaching and being part of teams of residents and trainees.
After my cardiac arrest, though, I told myself to just enjoy the present. I'm looking forward to being and attending and all that sort of stuff, but I can’t miss out on experiences or really appreciating the experiences of today. The benefits of being a medical student are different than benefits of being a resident, a fellow, and then being an attending. A lot of my friends that are attendings now talk to me about some of the craziness of the added responsibility or the weight of that versus when they were in the tail end of fellowship, when they felt very comfortable and confident running things but without having to be that final signature on the last line. There was a freedom and a joy related to that process of fellowship. I’m starting to realize that obviously there are challenges, but there are also benefits and freedoms in each stage of your training and really trying to maximize the most of this. I don’t want to become an attending and think about fellowship like “the good old days.” I want to be ever present and make the most of the time I have that in the moment.
What do you like to do to balance out your work and personal life?
With training and bouncing all over the country, I have made a lot of friends who are truly like family. A lot of my weekends are spent traveling around seeing old friends. I'm very much just a people person, so being able to hang out with people from different points of my training and just getting to see where they are in life and their families. There's so much to human interaction and connection. Sometimes when you're taking care of critically ill patients or you're just running through the day, you lose sight of that. But the times you get to stop and connect with people I think are really what makes medicine and life transcendent. And so I try and do as much of that as I can when I have my weekends off.
I don’t play basketball anymore. I was a little hardheaded, so it took me a year to truly figure that out as I kept on trying to play. We never found any etiology for my cardiac arrest, but we did find that if I exerted myself to that level where it's a full-court basketball game that I would have some arrhythmias. I still work out. I'll lift weights or cycle. I tried picking up piano, taking lessons for the first time in cardiology fellowship, and I actually had a recital that some of the cardiology fellows came to. It’s been a while since I’ve played, but it'd be cool to be able to get back to learning piano again.
What his nominator Douglas Drachman, MD (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston), says:
Dr. Anezi Uzendu is one of the most inspiring and dedicated individuals I have known. As a medical resident at UAB, he suffered a cardiac arrest while playing basketball and was rescued by a series of heroic efforts, initially and critically supported by bystander CPR. Since that time, he has pursued avenues of research, education, and advocacy aimed to improve the management of cardiac arrest, and to enhance public awareness and response to the need for bystander CPR.
As an interventional fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, he developed a program to teach members of our local Boston communities how to perform hands-only CPR. He obtained CPR mannequins from the AHA, delivered them to members of the community, then taught these individuals how to perform CPR through group sessions conducted over Zoom. Through this process, he reached over a hundred members of our community, and—importantly—taught them how to teach CPR to others, multiplying the impact. He has established a foundation entitled "Make BLS Basic," with the goal to teach CPR as broadly as possible, in the hopes to save lives for those who suffer cardiac arrest in our communities. Dr. Anezi Uzendu's dedication to this cause, and his overwhelming compassion for others, is unparalleled.
*To nominate a stellar cardiology fellow for the Featured Fellow section of TCTMD’s Fellows Forum, click here.