Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

A Purposeful Journey

The remarkable life of Dr. Richard Nyako '67 serves as 'living proof that our graduates make a difference in the world.'

One day in 1950, in a village in Ghana called Apesokubi, Richard Nyako’s father came home with a set of crutches for his nine-year-old son. Richard Nyako had been unable to walk since polio had struck him when he was four years old. When the boy needed 
to go somewhere, he dragged himself on his hands and knees. When he sought medical treatment at the nearest hospital, miles away, his father carried him on his shoulders.

For a boy with Richard’s disability, attending school was out of the question. Richard’s father, who earned his living as a cocoa farmer, made his son’s new crutches himself. On the day he brought them home, he told Richard: “You’re going to stand up and start walking. You’re going to go to school.” 

Six decades on, Richard Nyako, M.D., Ph.D., is retired from the neurology practice he established in Tampa, Florida, more than an ocean away from his childhood home. The long journey from Apesokubi to Tampa little more than 5,500 straight-line miles—began with those crutches and that first trip to school.

Nyako made the journey via Elmhurst College and the University of Illinois Medical School, with detours to the offices of countless doctors and a gifted surgeon who was able to repair the leg that polio had ruined. Wherever he went, he made an impression. Barbara Swords, one of Nyako’s teachers at Elmhurst, remembers him arriving on campus with one small bag and his crutches. She calls him “one of the most courageous men” she’s known.

Nyako’s remarkable journey across decades and continents continues in his version of retirement. He has been driven for years by the idea that his work is incomplete—and he wants to go home again. “It’s always been my aim to return to Ghana,” he says. “I’ve wanted to go back and take care of my people.”

In 1992, Nyako founded the Ghana Neurological Foundation, which supports two hospitals in Ghana and two in Tampa. He has been working to launch a medical clinic in his native country to serve people with little access to health care. On his regular visits home on foundation business, he would offer free medical care; the lines of people who waited to see him were proof enough of the need. “Word would get out that I was in town,” he says, “and soon my place would look like Grand Central Station.”

Nyako envisioned a clinic that would treat the neck and back pain that plague so many manual workers in Ghana, as well as the malaria and diabetes that hit the local population at alarming rates. It would provide rehabilitation for stroke victims. Most crucially, it would put on the ground badly needed general medical expertise. So many graduates of Ghana’s best schools leave the country to pursue opportunities elsewhere that the country suffers from a serious shortage of medical professionals. The entire country, Nyako notes, has two neurologists. The capital, Accra, a city of more than two million, has a single neurosurgeon.

Nothing about realizing Nyako’s vision has been easy. He originally intended to open his clinic in Koforidua, a regional commercial center where his foundation supports a hospital; the city even pledged to donate land for the clinic. But those plans fell though. In 2007, he learned about a property available in Tema, a suburb of Accra. Located on the main road to the capital, the land held two large homes that once served as corporate executive housing. Nyako believed the homes could be converted into a medical facility. He bought the property and set about renovating and equipping the buildings. He enlisted the help of one of his older brothers to oversee the work. The work was marked by delays and battles with sclerotic bureaucracy. “At times it was hard to get anything done,” Nyako says. “Really, the clinic should have gotten off the ground a long time ago. But I finally started pushing the right buttons. You have to be persistent, you know.”

When Nyako talks about his plans for the clinic, and the long years spent realizing those plans, his voice takes on an urgency. “I don’t know how much I’ll be able to accomplish in the time I have,” he says. “But I want to build something that will continue after I am gone.”
Richard Nyako’s education began at home, with his older brother, who taught him to read and write. He was an eager learner, reading, as he remembers it, “everything I could get my hands on.”

When he was finally able to go to school, he eased through his standardized examinations and skipped grades. Soon he was helping his teachers tutor his fellow students. One day a visitor came to see Nyako. “I was sitting and carving, doing some crafts, and suddenly there was this giant of a man standing there. He said to me, ‘I’ve seen your examination scores and I want you to come to my school,’” Nyako recalls.

The man’s name was Walter Trost and he was a minister from the United States, then working as headmaster of the Mawuli School, one of Ghana’s top secondary schools. The Mawuli School was about a hundred miles away from Nyako’s home, far from father and family. But Nyako took up Trost’s invitation and enrolled there.

Later, after Nyako had distinguished himself as a standout scholar at the Mawuli School—the educational attaché of the American embassy in Accra told him that he was amazed at his high SAT scores—Trost had another invitation for him. The headmaster had made some inquiries, and a school in the United States wanted Nyako to come study there. Elmhurst College was associated with Trost’s denomination, the United Church of Christ, and Trost had been in contact with the College’s president, Robert Christian Stanger.

Nyako packed a single bag and crossed the ocean and half a continent. He arrived in the U.S. on August 28, 1963, the day of the March on Washington. The conflict over race and civil rights made an immediate impression on Nyako. At a stopover in Milwaukee, he was at first denied service in a diner, then finally served an ice-cold dinner. Nyako walked out and headed for the nearby platform where he would catch a train to Chicago. On the platform, an African-American man approached and told Nyako that he’d seen him coming out of the diner, and that it was no place for a black man to be. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I wanted some food. I’m hungry,’” Nyako remembers. “I was not used to this sort of thing. I never knew about prejudices. It took me by surprise.”

On the Elmhurst campus, his welcome was considerably warmer. Unclear about the academic calendar and not even sure where he was supposed to go on arrival, Nyako showed up at the College about a week ahead of schedule. He started wandering the campus, looking for information. He had just set his bag down to rest when a man approached him and said, “You must be Richard.” It was President Stanger.

When Stanger learned that Nyako had not yet eaten, he guided him to the cafeteria, where he had lunch with the football team, the only other students on campus so far in advance of classes.

Nyako became part of a small international community at Elmhurst, joining a handful of students from Nigeria, Kenya, Indonesia, and Japan. He befriended an Indonesian student named Hock Yeoh who helped Nyako adjust to his new surroundings. Acclimating himself to an American diet was a problem—he says his stomach was in turmoil during much of his time at Elmhurst—as was navigating a Chicago winter on crutches. Nyako had never before encountered snow and ice, and even a short trip across campus would result in pratfalls. Trying to make it to downtown Elmhurst and back, even with his friend Hock’s help, was almost an odyssey. “We’d come home half-frozen,” Nyako remembers.

More troubling still was the matter of where Nyako would go when the College closed for long holiday breaks. “I don’t think we’d had a lot of experience with students from other countries yet,” Barbara Swords remembers. “I don’t think we’d considered what they would do over long breaks.”

Swords’s husband, Robert, then a professor of English, served as an informal advisor to international students and took a particular interest in Nyako. “My husband was struck immediately by the quality of Richard’s mind,” Swords says. “He admired his intellectual achievements, but also his strong character. He became Richard’s teacher and his friend.”

Bob Swords arranged for Richard to stay with families near the campus over holidays. But even that arrangement proved problematic. Nyako’s hosts would receive harassing phone calls from people who didn’t like the idea of a black man staying in the neighborhood. Aware of the stress his presence was causing his hosts, Nyako would borrow a few dollars from Swords and stay instead at a Chicago ymca.

Despite cultural differences, Nyako flourished in Elmhurst’s classrooms. “What I remember most of all is how dedicated my teachers were,” he says. He remembers angering one of his professors, Dr. Holbrook, by failing to follow directions on an exam. “He was furious. He said, ‘How dare you fail my test? I’d heard you were an excellent student.’”

When Nyako tried to explain to his professor that he had been confused by the test’s unfamiliar format, Holbrook offered him the chance to make up the grade by writing and submitting an extra paper. Nyako spent the night in the library and showed up in Holbrook’s office the next day, paper complete. “He said, ‘I think you’ll do okay after all. I’ll see you in class.’”

Even as he pursued his bachelor’s degree at Elmhurst, Nyako continued to seek medical help for his disability. Visiting doctor after doctor, he was told that his case was hopeless, that his leg had atrophied beyond repair. The message was always the same: “If only you’d come to see me sooner.”

Finally, an Elmhurst trustee named Bill Cates heard about Nyako’s case and introduced him to one of Chicago’s leading orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Harold Sofield, at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park. Sofield told Nyako that he might be able to solve his problem with a series of surgeries. He would break Nyako’s leg at the knee, cut his Achilles tendon, and splice in tissue to lengthen the tendon. After the procedure, Nyako would have to spend three months in a cast that encased his leg from hip to toes. But if the surgeries were successful, at the end of the ordeal Nyako would be able to trade in his crutches for a cane, and eventually to walk unaided.
Toward the end of his time at Elmhurst, Nyako could walk with just a cane. Made of ebony, with an ivory handle, it had been a gift from his father. One day he misplaced the cane. He never saw it again. But by then he no longer needed it.

By the time Nyako graduated from Elmhurst in 1967, he had formed a professional plan. He would go to medical school in the U.S., then return home to take a position at the University of Ghana and to open a mobile clinic to serve areas that lacked decent health care.

Nyako enrolled at the University of Illinois Graduate and Medical Schools in Chicago, where he earned both a medical degree and a Ph.D. in biochemistry. After finishing school, however, he was so deeply in debt that he had to postpone his plans to return to Ghana. Instead he worked at health clinics and hospitals in Chicago and taught chemistry at Malcolm X College and Central YMCA College. On weekends, he staffed emergency rooms in hospitals in downstate cities such as Ottawa and Galesburg and at Chanute Air Force Base.

In 1981, he tried to return home to take a position at the University of Ghana, only to have his plans disrupted by political unrest. He arrived at the university to find it patrolled by soldiers, who were rounding up political activists in the wake of a coup. The dean who had hired him had gone into hiding. Nyako returned to the U.S.
Another African opportunity, this one in Nigeria two years later, evaporated under similar circumstances. By then Nyako was becoming eager to settle down and establish a practice. He married his sweetheart from high school days. Richard and Fiawoseee Nyako had three children, Felicia, Kofi, and Patience, and relocated to Tampa. Richard launched a neurodiagnostic center and brought the first MRI to the area. He supported free clinics and cared for elderly and low-income patients. He retired from his practice in 2002, while still waiting for his chance to realize his decades-long vision and go home again.

Nyako was back in Elmhurst in October 2007 for his class’s fortieth class reunion. He caught up with old friends (“We had all grayed,” he says), marveled at the changes on campus, and chatted with Barbara Swords. He told Swords about his plans for the clinic in Tema. In June 2008, Nyako was back on campus, this time for commencement, where he received an honorary doctor of science degree in recognition of his work in Ghana and the United States. Swords presented him for the honor. In her remarks, she called him “a son of Elmhurst who is living proof that our graduates make a difference in the world.”

The customary reward for a long career in medicine is an easy retirement with regular rounds of golf. So why is Nyako spending his retirement shuttling between Tampa and Tema, overseeing the final touches on his new clinic, preparing to open it to patients?
 “It’s not easy to retire,” he says. “You say to yourself, now what? Do I sit around and do nothing for ten, fifteen, twenty years?”

By going home to provide health care for the people in Ghana who need it most, Nyako is giving an emphatic answer to that question.  “It’s important to have a sense of purpose,” he says.

by Andrew Santella

Photo by Richard Nyako

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