Times Record News – Surgeon who once couldn’t afford to buy food now MSU’s commencement speaker

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By Lana Sweeten-Shults of the Times Record News

Midwestern State University alumnus Michael Obeng has never thrown away the letter one of his uncles sent him.

Yellowed and frayed, it did not convey the words of encouragement a young man might expect. His uncle wrote that it probably would be best for him to stay in his home country of Ghana. To move to America and try to go to school, with no way of paying for it, wasn’t a good idea.

“You know what?” Obeng thought to himself. “I’m going to chase my dream.”

People are everywhere, he said, even in your own family, who will discourage you. No one, he says, knows your own mind and your own will better than you.

“If you fall down seven times, you get up eight times,” he said in a video published on YouTube in 2013. Obeng got up countless times.

The Beverly Hills plastic surgeon will tell his story as the MSU commencement speaker 10 a.m. Saturday at Kay Yeager Coliseum. About 675 students are expected to graduate.

The death of Obeng’s mother at an early age — she was just 40 — and of his grandmother, who played an important role in raising him, is what pushed him early on to become a physician. Obeng said when he couldn’t afford to bury is mom, that was a turning point for him to work for a better life.

Then there was the arrival of Operation Smile in Ghana when he was 12. The international children’s medical charity provides free surgeries to children with cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities.

One day, he wanted to do the same.

When he was planning the next step in his education, he saw an MSU flier in a friend’s dorm room. An uncle of his lived in Arlington, Texas, so he knew MSU was where he needed to be.

He took an assortment of odd jobs. He laid carpet. He worked for Golden Corral. He was a bus driver for the Wichita Falls ISD.

Still, there were times Obeng didn’t have enough money to eat.

“Everything was pretty hard in those days. It was really tough trying to put together $2.99 to get Cici’s Pizza,” he said with a laugh.

He remembers also not having money for textbooks. He would borrow books and has a place in his heart for a fellow student, Michael Pebworth: “He bought me my first textbook … and for another student to do that was amazing,” Obeng said of the $50 textbook.

Another friend would pick him up and take him to church on Sundays and to MSU games.

“He would take me to the Chinese buffet, so those were very good moments,” Obeng said.

He worked his way to being a residence assistant, a position that came with room and board — and that took away some of his worries.

Obeng graduated cum laude from MSU in 1997 with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, then received his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston with postgraduate work in plastic and reconstructive surgery at the UT Medical Branch John Sealy Hospitals for Children.

That’s when he set his sights on Harvard.

Again, he was discouraged. He couldn’t reach that high, people told him. But Obeng ended up earning a fellowship to Harvard Medical School and now is a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills with his own private practice, called MIKO. He also is on staff at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.

While his Beverly Hills businesses aims to give patients their “dream self” through face procedures and various body procedures, Obeng’s nonprofit gives other patients, many of them from developing countries, the chance of realizing a different kind of dream. These patients simply don’t want to be ostracized because of a deformity.

Remembering Operation Smile, Obeng formed the nonprofit RESTORE Worldwide, a foundation that provides reconstructive surgery to victims of abuse and those born with congenital defects. Obeng has traveled back home to Ghana, where some attribute those deformities to witchcraft, and he and volunteer teams have visited Guatemala, too.

When he arrives back in Wichita Falls, he said he hopes to find Michael Pebworth, the student who bought him his first textbook, and he wants to reconnect with that MSU friend who would take him to the Chinese buffet.

He remembers MSU as the place that encouraged his dreams: “I won’t forget where it all started.”

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