From Africa to America

While he didn’t swim here from Africa or narrowly escape from rebels who took over his village, Dr. Ngugi Mukora Kinyungu, physician in the area of pain management and anesthesia with Trinity Health, has taken an interesting path in his journey from the highlands of Kenya to the American plains.

August of this year will mark 15 years since Kinyungu made his journey from Limuru, a small town in the highlands of Kenya, to Nebraska and eventually to North Dakota.

Kinyungu finished high school in 1996 and, in Africa, when students finish high school, he said they take a massive exam and are placed in university, but it takes two years before students can start their university education. He had an idea of coming to America, he added. His sister, Njoki, the oldest of nine children total and matriarch of the family (because the oldest sibling usually is head of the household where Kinyungu comes from), asked what he wanted to do and Kinyungu said he wanted to be a physician. Kinyungu’s sister thought he should be a pharmacist instead, he added, since he is sensitive to people.

“When you go into college in Africa, you know what you’re going to do and based on your grades, you have a list of three choices,” Kinyungu explained. It’s not like in the U.S. where you start college with an undecided major, he added. Plus, Kenya is highly competitive among students, Kinyungu noted. He said he applied to colleges in the U.S., but it was a long process because the Internet wasn’t available or in wide use in 1996 like it is now. Kinyungu was accepted into three universities, but chose University of Nebraska-Lincoln since it was the cheapest.

On his first airplane ride out of Kenya, Kinyungu said the woman sitting next to him struck up a conversation with him and they ended up becoming life-long friends. The woman, Millie, was on her way back to Iowa after a mission trip and Kinyungu said he considers Millie to be his American mom. Over the years when he was going through medical school and training, he said she would send him $30 or so, thinking he might need a little extra for a meal, which often times he did. Millie assisted Kinyungu for 15 years, but when that plane landed in the U.S., all Kinyungu said he had was $100, but Millie thought that was too high of a note to spend and gave him $5 so that he could get something to eat. Kinyungu’s first American meal was at McDonald’s.

“Life is hard for an international student and Millie would send me money,” Kinyungu remarked. “I didn’t ask, she just knew to send money.”

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kinyungu enrolled in the pre-pharmacy program, but started thinking he didn’t want the barrier of the counter between him and other people and switched into the pre-med program. Unfortunately, Kinyungy had no financial assistance from home, but managed to get into the honors program, which helped pay for his books. He also won some academic scholarships, he added. Additionally, Kinyungu said he worked at McDonald’s and as a nurse’s assistant in a nursing home. Kinyungu also tried to be involved in campus activities and played intramural rugby as well as got involved in student government and organized an African festival on campus.

After Kinyungu finished his undergraduate studies, he applied for medical school. During that time, he attended a party thrown by a friend of his and happened to meet his future wife, who is from St. Lucia, an island in the Caribbean.

Kinyungu was accepted into Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, only he didn’t know how he would afford the tuition, but was lucky enough to receive a tuition scholarship. Initially, he went there with the intent to be a surgeon, he said, because every Kenyan thinks he or she will be a surgeon. When he started his rotations, he wasn’t excited about it and it didn’t appeal to him, Kinyungu explained. “I felt very lost and didn’t know what to do,” he continued. “But I signed up for a voluntary anesthesia rotation and I loved it. It called to me.”

For his residency, Kinyungu went to the University of Chicago. It was a very tough program and everything was experienced in real time, he said. “At the beginning I was so nervous and threw up every morning for the first six months.” Along the way, though, Kinyungu said he realized that his hands were blessed for being a doctor dealing in the area of pain management. He came to love pain management because of the connection he could have with the patients, he said.

“It’s so subjective because you can’t measure pain,” Kinyungu remarked. “You have to listen to the patient, but it can be very challenging and frustrating. Pain is tough to treat, but going through pain is also discouraging.”

When it came time for Kinyungu to apply for fellowship, he received interviews but didn’t land a spot so he started looking for a job. He saw an old e-mail message from Trinity and they offered to fly him to Minot to check things out. As it turned out, he loved Minot, Kinyungu said, and took a job with Trinity as an anesthesiologist with the intent to continue in the pain management field and with Trinity’s permission to do so. Kinyungu continued his studies in pain management at Loyola University in Chicago, then returned to Trinity to work in the pain management field.

“I love the patients so much, but my dream is to see a patient who’s in pain be 100 percent free of pain,” Kinyungu said. “My hands were blessed for pain management. If it weren’t for my American mom (Millie) and God’s grace, I wouldn’t be here. Millie is an angel placed by God to guide me.”

The last time Kinyungu returned to his home in Kenya was in 2009 and is hoping to go this year. His sister died about five years ago, he said, and the way she died, from typhoid, makes him want to be better at pain management. His sister went from healthy to dead within five days because she didn’t get treatment in time, Kinyungu said.

Kinyungu said he misses the land and the people of Africa. He also misses the easygoing lifestyle that he had in Kenya, but added that life is becoming westernized all over now. American society is great, Kinyungu noted, but also very individualistic and that is different for him. “In Kenya, if you open up to someone, they’re your friend, but it’s not like that here,” he added.

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to