November 21 (THEWILL) – Poor medical care is one of the biggest challenges we face in Nigeria. If you can afford it, medical tourism is the answer and that’s assuming you can travel at the right time. However, with the current economic recession, and the rising cost of foreign currency, many people who could travel abroad for treatment until now find themselves in dire straits. Stella’s story takes us on a painful journey of poor healthcare, its consequences, and our current limited options.
Stella had been away from Nigeria for nearly two years and was excited to be back even if only for a few weeks or so I thought. She was accepted into Southern Illinois University Carbondale to study for her Ph.D. and only had three months to go when she decided to return to Nigeria to do some research for her thesis. Unbeknownst to Stella, the events that will take place on this journey will change her life forever.
She was on her way to Kano to meet with a member of her organization but she never got there. I was so tired, I fell asleep in the back of the Toyota Camry I was traveling in. She awoke to find the car turned over while it was still strapped to her seat. People were surrounding the car, trying to drag it out. She felt a warm spur of blood flowing down the side of her face and an excruciating pain in her back, then slowly realized that she had had an accident. Under her breath with all the horrific drama going on around her, the words muttered: “Not again. Please God not again.”
Stella was referring to a previous accident she had several years ago before it cost her her leg due to poor medical care. Knowing the consequences of this, her primary concern when she realized the situation she was in, was to avoid any mistakes that could have dire consequences. Stella had a degree in Nursing from Obafemi Awolowo University, if she knew largely from the nature of her pain that her back was broken but tried as she did, she could not communicate with the crowd of terrified people who were trying to rescue her, that more damage could be done if It is not handled with caution. She spotted someone wearing a NYC uniform and explained that they had to be carried a certain way to avoid further complications. Therefore, she was transferred in a log to a waiting bus.
Because of the doctor’s strike, Ahmadu Bello Teaching Hospital, Zaria, the closest, was not an option. She was taken to a nearby home to give birth that lacked the equipment to even take x-rays to determine the extent of the damage. She was carried roughly from the stretcher to the bed, and all they could do was stop the bleeding from her head injury.
The next day, she called her family and they arranged an ambulance, but the usual delays in getting the police report and other documents slowed down the procedure. The ambulance service organized by Ashoka’s colleague, Nakim Maumah, who had previously been in similar circumstances and now devoted himself to providing assistance to others, came as a relief.
She was taken to the National Hospital where her problems worsened. She was still bleeding profusely from her head and the doctor focused only on treating the head wound even though she kept telling them her back was broken. Her final admission to the intensive care unit did more harm than sheer neglect. She had a tingling sensation in her legs and could lift them up when she got to the hospital but by the next day when the counselor arrived, she had no feeling or movement. The MRI he required of her back caused more severe pain and damage as they moved her in different angles. Another counselor from Usman Dan Fodio arrived, but admitted they did not have the equipment to deliver the aggressive treatment her injury required and asked hospital staff to wrap her in a POP. Stella cried in pain and begged death to come but death wasn’t ready for her yet.
It was Stella’s salvation when it came through her former classmates and a complete stranger. Her previous work rescuing HIV patients had taken a toll on her colleagues and they are now rallying around to save her. Dr. Mike Ibo, Dr. Odaga, Dr. Natalia Kanem and Kathleen Berry are among the people Stella will never forget. They contact doctors all over the world in search of options. Finally, they found a New York physician, Dr. Ohanabe Boachie who founded an organization called the Focos Foundation for complex orthopedic and spine surgeries. He agreed to take her case after an MRI review. She was transferred to Ghana the next day. A complete stranger who chartered planes volunteered to fly them to Ghana. Mike and Kathleen stood in the gap. I was touched to see Mike physically carrying her on the plane the whole time while encouraging her to stay there. The second doctor who was due to travel with them didn’t show up, so Kathleen dropped whatever she was doing, called her family and told them she was traveling. Then I jumped on the plane and followed it to Ghana. The support was incredible. For Stella, it was a surreal moment that touched her heart and will remain there for the rest of her life.
When they arrived in Ghana, two surgeons waiting on the runway took her to Kolibo Teaching Hospital and within 24 hours of her arrival the surgery was performed. The bone was reset, relieving pressure on the spinal cord. To this day, Stella tells the story of her death in Nigeria and her resurrection in Ghana. Four weeks later, she was taken back to the United States where the speculation was that her chances of her walking back were very slim. Her journey to life began there. She did 40 hours of physical therapy every week. She had to extend her PhD for another two years so that she could get the required medical help available only to full-time students.
Stella still has many medical issues to solve. She had such constant back pain that it felt like someone was cutting her back with a razor blade and spilling lemon juice on her. Even simple daily bathroom routines required help that tampered with her dignity and self-esteem. Her two children, aged 12 and 14, became her primary caregivers, cleaning, washing and feeding her; Took her to the hospital. Their childhood was cut short and even a few years later when her daughter was awarded a scholarship at Stamford University, she turned her down to remain close so that she could take care of her mother.
Stella often felt like giving up but she knew that as a single mother, she had to live for her children and couldn’t let down all the people rooting for her. Therefore, she resisted and invaded. When she finished her studies, she could not go back to Nigeria immediately because she was still receiving treatment, so she got a job as an assistant professor at Cleveland State University, Ohio where she worked for about 6 years during that time, she underwent several surgeries.
The decision to return home came after a series of devastating events. Stella’s sister died in 2015 shortly after giving birth. Again, the culprit was poor medical care. The nurses left some of the placenta in her womb and the family was unable to collect N250,000 for her treatment. Shortly after this incident, her father and close cousin also died due to medical mismanagement. Stella was devastated, sad and depressed. She blamed herself for being too far from helping them, at which point she vowed to return home to continue her contribution to the health sector. By a miracle, after promising God that she would return to work in Nigeria if she walked again, she got out of the wheelchair and walked with a chariot. Therefore, she quit her job in the US and moved back to Nigeria.
Back in Nigeria, Stella participated in a documentary called “Failed by Angels” which highlighted the medical neglect suffered by patients, particularly during maternity care and public awareness of the National Health Act.
It ran a series of campaigns but always felt it didn’t make a huge impact on the system. And then, Stella discovered agriculture. It started as just a small vegetable patch that provided some of the nutrients you needed and then moved on to farming and animal husbandry on a large scale. Stella was ecstatic. I found her connection. She has given lectures and written articles on healthy eating and nutrition. Most importantly, she found that her health had improved dramatically. She lost weight, got stronger, and gave up most of her medication. The only downside was the procedure she had to do every six months in the US, but she had enough winnings on top of her savings to cover that, so it wasn’t a problem. But then covid-19 hit!
Like many others around the world, the Covid 19 lockdown has affected Stella’s business. Her farm hands could not come to work and lost a large number of her livestock. She had planted seven hectares of cassava but the cows broke into her farm and ate most of it. At harvest time, she only had two hectares of cassava left. It was a huge blow to her vision and financial security.
As a result, Stella can no longer afford semi-annual trips to the United States for her treatment. But all is not lost. The company that makes the equipment used for the procedure informed her that Dr. Ojo was trained in the procedure and could do it if he had the equipment, software, and medication. He works at University of Lagos Teaching Hospital. Stella was excited to receive the news and called the doctor who confirmed that he could perform the operation if he had the equipment that would cost five million naira (5 million naira) to purchase.
The next treatment Stella will be at the end of November. If you do not receive treatment, you may die. It’s that easy. If you are touched by her story and want to help us keep Stella and others with the same condition alive, please donate for her next treatment and purchase equipment. We are also appealing to the Lagos State Government to help procure equipment that will benefit many patients.