Before founding West Africa’s first air ambulance service, Ola Orekunrin had already made a name for herself as the youngest medical doctor in the United Kingdom.
Originally born in London, the British-Nigerian from Ilawe-Ekiti in Ekiti State of Nigeria, grew up in a foster home with her sister in the town of Lowestoft, south-east of England.
Upon graduation, she was awarded the MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship where she studied clinic research in the field of regenerative medicine at the Jikei University Hospital. She moved back to Europe after completing her research.
It was during these moments in medical school that a tragic event that would shape her career decisions occurred.
Her younger sister became very ill whilst staying with relatives in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the local hospital was unable to manage her sickle cell anemia condition and to make matters worse, there was no air ambulance to transport her to a suitable medical facility.
The family searched from Nigeria to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Cameroon, and across West Africa to no avail. When the family finally found an air ambulance in South Africa, five hours away, and arranged logistics, Orekunrin’s sister had died.
“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,” Orekunrin recounted.
Choosing the latter, Orekunrin, who had then worked for 10 years with Britain’s National Health Service, quit her job and moved to Lagos, Nigeria, determined to make a difference in healthcare delivery in the country.
Having been trained in medicine and aviation, she set up Flying Doctors Nigeria, West Africa’s first Air Ambulance Service in 2007.
The air ambulance service, based in Lagos, is dedicated to bringing medical service to remote parts of Western Africa. With over 44 doctors and 20 aircraft as of 2018, the air ambulance service offers helicopter emergency services including medical disasters and evacuation services.
Flying Doctors Nigeria is now a multi-million-dollar entity with a staff strength of over 50 people.
“Flying Doctors Nigeria has since its 10 years of operation supported and encouraged Nigerians to embrace this means of transporting critically ill patients and those in painful medical conditions. Flying Doctors Nigeria is dedicated to bringing trauma care to the most remote parts of Western Africa,” Orekunrin, who has so far become an author and international speaker, said recently.
She added: “Flying Doctors Nigeria plans to invest over $10million in the next five years in the sector, across West and Central Africa on new aircraft, operations, medical equipment, staff training and medicines expanding access to the most remote parts of the region.”