When Ola Orekunrin was a 22-year-old medical student in the UK, her 12-year-old sister became critically ill while visiting relatives in Nigeria. With no medical facility nearby that could treat her condition, the family attempted to arrange an air evaluation.
Orekunrin was shocked to discover that not only was no air ambulance available in Nigeria, there was not one available in the whole of West Africa: “The nearest one at the time was in South Africa. They had a 12-hour activation time so by the time they were ready to activate, my sister was dead.” It was then, she explains, “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.”
Motivated by her sister’s death and the desire to help others with minimal access to trauma care, Orekunrin left a promising medical career in the UK to found West Africa’s first air ambulance service, Flying Doctors Nigeria. Now a 27-year-old trauma doctor and helicopter pilot, Orekunrin’s fleet of airplanes and helicopters have airlifted hundreds of 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,” Orekunrin says.
“I wanted to find a way that I can facilitate people who were critically ill,” she says. “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.” In addition to the distance to health care facilities, there are many other challenges in the region that make air transport critical: “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.”
Orekunrin is proud of her accomplishments, but sees much more room to improve the state of medical care in Nigeria: “Eighty percent of the world trauma occurs in low-middle income countries just like Nigeria. I feel there should be more focus on the trauma epidemic that Africa currently faces… I want to achieve a proper use of the healthcare sector in Nigeria.”
For her impressive accomplishments and determination to fill a critical social need, Dr. Orekunrin was named one of the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Young Global Leaders, the organization’s prestigious group of the world’s top leaders under the age of 40.
To learn more about her remarkable story, you can listen to an interview with Orekunrin on NPR at http://n.pr/1bSA6ay or watch a TED talk by her at http://bit.ly/1khnfl1. You can also visit website of the Flying Doctors Nigeria at http://flyingdoctorsnigeria.com/