The girl had one wish: “I just want my smile back.”
Dr. Oluwaseun Adetayo’s patient hadn’t appeared in a photo since an injury left her with facial paralysis, and four years had passed since the girl’s mother had seen her smile.
As the section chief of pediatric plastic surgery and the founder/director of the Cleft-Craniofacial Center at Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y., Adetayo (BS02) reversed the injury that crippled the young girl’s self-worth. During the surgery, she reconstructed the girl’s face, burying the surgical incisions. The child’s smile was reclaimed – and so was her self-confidence.
After the patient recovered, “She took Christmas pictures for the first time in years,” Adetayo says, joyously.
From newborns to adults to the elderly, Adetayo treats a variety of patients in her pediatric and adult clinics, where she repairs a wide range of deformities. On average, she performs 10 to 20 surgeries weekly. The goal, she says, is to “restore the form and function” to injured bodies.
For many patients, the result is emotional and life-changing. “For me, it’s a privilege to take part in something so important and close to people’s lives,” Adetayo says. “To be able to give back and to be able to restore a child or an adult back to normal, it’s a small part to play if it makes their life a little easier and a little better.”
“I could help other people”
Dr. Adetayo knew she was destined to pursue medicine when she was still a child of 13 living in Nigeria. There, she had a friend suffering from sickle cell anemia.
“I remember vividly—we were just playing, and classes were over Friday,” Adetayo laments. “We all played, everyone. And then we said our goodbyes.”
The next Monday, she discovered that her close friend had lost her battle with the disease.
“When that happened, (my interest in medicine) solidified, because she was cheated of her life. It was traumatic and reinforced to me that I was going to do something. I may not have been able to help her, but I could help other people.”
Adetayo was already fascinated with anatomy, and her parents nurtured her interest. They brought Adetayo medicine-related gifts from work trips, including a medical encyclopedia from London. Adetayo loved that encyclopedia, which was housed in her family’s living room. When medical questions arose, she’d scurry to the book and pore over its information.
Her passion for medicine eventually led her to Eastern Michigan University in 1999, but not without a few setbacks. “Every door I turned, there was no assistance for international students,” she says. “Eastern was one of very few schools that was quite progressive for that time,” says Adetayo. “They not only encouraged internationals but supported them. I said, ‘I have to check this school out.’”
She filed her application, and was ecstatic to discover that she qualified for an international student scholarship. “At that point, I said, ‘I am packing my bags and I am going to Ypsilanti, because that’s a school that cares about internationals.’”
At EMU, she majored in computer science and minored in biochemistry and mathematics.
“I asked her what area she wanted to pursue when she graduated and she knew she wanted to be a surgeon,” says Dr. Elizabeth Butch, who first met Adetayo as a student in her general biochemistry I course. “She stated she was an international student, so that would make it much more difficult to get accepted to medical school.”
The former EMU assistant professor notes that few U.S. medical schools accept international students. According to her, only one international med student per year from a pool of about 180 makes it through.
“I told her she really needed to do undergraduate research to have her skills stand out even more,” Butch recalls.
Adetayo gleaned valuable experience from a biotech start-up in Ann Arbor that flexed her disease-research skills and—along with her grades (she graduated summa cum laude) and MCAT scores—gave her an edge over fellow students.
“Oluwaseun was the perfect match for this venture,” Butch says. “You have to have a very dedicated and persistent student to succeed and she represented our laboratory and EMU to the highest degree. These relationships are fragile and take a lot of hard work at both ends of the mentoring process, especially since at that time we were breaking new ground at EMU to give students these opportunities with small companies.”
In 2002, Adetayo was accepted at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, where she earned her medical degree.
“I was so proud of her, for all of her hard work had made her achieve the start of her journey,” Butch says.
When Adetayo returned to the EMU Symposium in April 2016 as the keynote speaker, she was adamant that Butch be present as well because “she was my mentor, my advocate, my supporter and she really just watched out for me,” Adetayo says.
Hope for the hopeless
Before Dr. Adetayo moved to Albany in 2013, she recognized that there were no pediatric plastic surgery programs in the region.
“That’s when I devoted a lot of time and resources, and I said, ‘I have this talent that I’ve gained,’” she says. “There were lots of other offers for me to come to other institutions, but I kept looking back and said, ‘You know, these other places would be comfortable for me: they’re already established, there are people already practicing and I’ll join.’”
But her heart kept leading her back to the opportunity to run a surgical facility in a place that needed one.
“It was a decision that I felt at peace making,” she says. “I felt that I would be able to do more good, and that it would help a lot of people who didn’t have access to care.”
Albany Medical College was built in 1839; the medical center was established a decade later, in 1849. In 2015, two years after Adetayo arrived in Albany, she and her team opened a comprehensive craniofacial center, the first in northeastern New York. Her focus there is skull abnormalities and other facial irregularities.
Adetayo has received over 20 awards for her work, including the CRANIO award, presented by the American Society of Maxillofacial Surgeons and the Maxillofacial Surgeons’ Foundation. The award was given to Adetayo in 2015 for demonstrating leadership and excellence in managing craniofacial conditions, contributing to academic achievements and serving as a future leader in the field of cleft and craniofacial care.
For Butch, Adetayo’s post-college success is in line with her exemplary status as an EMU student. “She believed that to achieve your dreams you had to work hard,” says Butch, “and she was willing to put forth Herculean efforts to achieve her goals.”
The results of those efforts can be seen in the lives she changes. A patient who leaves her office “bawling”—it happens, she says. A child who draws a picture of a path leading to a home with a heart that says, “LOVE YOU,” evoking a Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation: “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” And also, of course, a young girl who has her smile again. Adetayo’s work has left a mark on countless lives— including her own.
“It’s helped me be more in tune with the needs of people,” she says, “and (taught me that) there is no situation that’s so hopeless that you can’t bring some degree of hope to it.”
Contact Darcy Gifford, firstname.lastname@example.org, 734.487.5375