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Ola Orekunrin, Nigerian who pioneered flying ambulance in West Africa

RONKE SANYA
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Spurred to become ‘‘flying’’ doctor after sister’s death

The thought of someone being a doctor, emergency physician, pilot, entrepreneur, all rolled into one is a feat that beats the imagination, RONKE SANYA shares the story of Ola Orekunrin.

Unlike many of her peers who spend so much time on the social media networks, she has only three tweets to her credit, the last one was sent three years ago, precisely on February 13, 2012.

Ola Orekunrin is a medical doctor, helicopter pilot and entrepreneur. She is the founder of Flying Doctors Nigeria, the first air-operated emergency medical services in West Africa, situated in Lagos.

Born, raised and trained in London, she grew up in Lowestoft, south-east of England. Orekunrin graduated from Hull York Medical School at the age of 21, becoming one of the youngest medical doctors in the United Kingdom. After graduation, she worked for 10 years with the National Health Service, United Kingdom.

Determined to improve the healthcare delivery system in Nigeria, she set up Flying Doctors Nigeria, West Africa’s first and only full air ambulance service. She has successfully, through sheer self-will, steered the company upwards, achieved huge goals and the sustained growth of her company, which has attracted numerous applauds.

According to the Cable News Network, her air floated ambulance, “Flying Doctors Nigeria, has transported 500 people in its first three years.”

Narrating the story of Orekunrin, the fly doctor, CNN revealed in 2013 that, “Orekunrin was studying to become a doctor in the UK a few years ago, when her younger sister fell seriously ill while traveling in Nigeria. The 12-year-old girl, who had gone to the West African country on holiday with relatives, needed urgent care but the nearest hospital couldn’t deal with her condition.

“Orekunrin and her family immediately began looking for an air ambulance service to rapidly transport the girl, a sickle cell anemia sufferer, to a more suitable healthcare facility. They searched all across West Africa but were stunned to find out there was none in the whole region.
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“The nearest one at the time was in South Africa,” Orekunrin said, adding that, “They had a 12-hour activation time so by the time they were ready to activate, my sister was dead.

“It was really a devastating time for me and I started thinking about whether I should be in England talking about healthcare in Africa, or I should be in Africa dealing with healthcare and trying to do something about it.”

She, however, chose to relocate to Africa and contribute her iota to solving healthcare challenges in Africa. Motivated by the death of her sister, the young doctor decided to leave behind a high-flying job in the United Kingdom to take to the Nigerian skies and address the vital issue of urgent healthcare in West Africa.

Orekunrin now transport victims of medical emergencies, including industrial workers from West Africa to appropriate destinations where they can receive fast and efficient healthcare. Her company gets patients flown in from Mali, Chad, Niger, into Nigeria for treatment.

“There was a situation in Nigeria where there were only two or three very good hospitals and they were sometimes a two, three, four-day journey away from the places where incidents happened,” says Orekunrin.

Her Lagos-based company has so far airlifted about 500 patients, using a fleet of planes and helicopters to rapidly move injured workers and critically ill people from remote areas to hospitals.

“From patients with road traffic trauma, to bomb blast injuries to gunshot wounds, we save lives by moving these patients and providing a high level of care en route. Many of our roads are poorly maintained, so emergency transport by road during the day is difficult. At night, we have armed robbers on our major highways; coupled with poor lighting and poor state of the roads themselves, emergency transport by road is deadly for both patients and staff,” she told CNN.

After her graduation from the University of York, she was awarded the MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship and moved to Japan to conduct research in the field of regenerative medicine. After moving back to Europe, the young doctor chose a career in medicine in the UK but her desire to improve healthcare services in West Africa brought her back to her roots.

Orekunrin quit her job, sold her assets and went on to study evacuation models and air ambulance services in other developing countries before launching her ambitious venture, which enables her to combine her “deep love for medicine and Africa” with her growing passion for flying.

“I wanted to find a way that I can facilitate people who were critically ill. Get them to see a doctor, and not just any doctor, I wanted to facilitate getting the right patient to the right facility, within the right time frame for that particular illness, and that’s why I came to start the air ambulance,” she said.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recognised Orekunrin’s achievements by naming her among its prestigious Young Global Leaders class of 2013, a group it describes as the best of today’s leaders under the age of 40.

Speaking of challenges, she says that there are still several challenges that need to be navigated to successfully run a company like hers in the West African country.

Despite these challenges, Orekunrin remains determined to bring about change in Nigeria’s healthcare system. “I want to achieve a proper use of the healthcare sector in Nigeria,” she said.

Looking ahead, Orekunrin says her goal is to continue improving access to treatment while focusing on the pre-hospital and in-hospital management of injuries. She says whilst much attention and funding is directed toward infectious diseases, Africa is also facing the problem of treating physical injuries and wounds.

“I feel there should be more focus on the trauma epidemic that Africa currently faces. In the United Kingdom, I would see one gunshot wound every three or four years. In Nigeria, I see one gunshot wound every three-four days. And in road-traffic trauma, falls from heights, industrial injuries, stab sounds, injuries from domestic violence and you see a huge problem that definitely needs addressing,” Orekunrin said.

Undaunted by challenges, she established Flying Doctors in Lagos, in 2007. Orekunrin is a member of both the American Academy of Aesthetic Surgeons and the British Medical Association.

So, if she is not active on the social media, you should understand that, she is busy elsewhere, helping the sick and the afflicted.

PUBLISHED: 21.Mar.2015. By RONKE SANYA
Copyright © 2015 Nigerian Tribune

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