LAKELAND, Fla. — A Lakeland surgeon is receiving national recognition. The North American Spine Society named Dr. Chukwuka Okafor as one of the top 20 spine physicians 40 years old and younger.

  • Okafor named top 20 spine physicians 40 and younger
  • Returned to US from Nigeria at 17 years old
  • Founder of the Spine Institute of Central Florida

Okafor is the founder of the Spine Institute of Central Florida. He opened the practice in 2010 and now has more than 80 employees.

He’s known for innovative surgeries such as performing the first pediatric scoliosis correction in Polk County.

The orthopedic spine surgeon calls the award humbling.

“It came as a surprise. I did not know I would be selected for the recognition, so I was quite excited when I got the notification that I got selected,” Okafor said.

Okafor was born in Boston, but he spent much of his childhood in Nigeria, where his parents are from. The electricity there was sporadic, and access to water was sometimes sparse.

"You have to go out with big buckets to go, walk like 10 more miles or more to find a fountain to fetch some water," Okafor recalled.

That humble upbringing led him to pass up a full ride to medical school in Nigeria to return to the United States when he was 17.

"I felt like in the United States, the sky is the limit," Okafor said.

His uncle and older brother bought his plane ticket, and with broken English, he started knocking on doors looking for jobs.

"I remember -- talking about failures -- going to like, 20 doors and people were saying, 'No we don't want you; we don't have any job,' when they had 'job wanted' signs on the doors," Okafor said.

His English fluency got better by watching lots of television.

Eventually, he got a job as a supermarket janitor, and then as a manager at Wendy’s. Within nine months of arriving in the United States, he had received a scholarship to study at the University of Massachusetts.

He said he saved much of his money and sent some back to Nigeria to help his family.

"I was helping in any way I can, helping get my siblings over when it was their time to come... It was fun times," Okafor said.

He went on to graduate from the University of Massachusetts summa cum laude with a bachelor of science in biochemistry.

He was awarded the school's John F. Kennedy award, which is the highest honor bestowed on any undergraduate of UMass Boston.

He then went to Boston University Medical School, and during that time also finished his master's in business administration.

Okafor then was accepted into one of the top nationally recognized orthopedic surgery residency training programs at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's Rothman Institute. While in residency, he said he trained with national leaders and world-renowned spine surgeons.

Okafor landed in Florida through a fellowship with the Florida Orthopedic Institute. It was there that he learned there was a need for an orthopedic spine surgeon in Polk County.

"I noticed patients from the Central Florida area were having long travels to get quality spine care," Okafor said.

He said he's glad he chose to stay in Lakeland. He thinks the key to success is focus, always finding ways to innovate and putting forth a lot of effort.