Even though an air ambulance service was first suggested for Nigeria in 1960 nothing was done about that idea until Ola Orekunrin Brown (whose mother was probably not born in 1960) decided to do something about it sometime in 2010. Today it is to her credit that the first air ambulance service in the entire West African sub region is the idea of a Nigerian. And the company have been saving several lives ever since. But how did this young damsel come up with such a brilliant idea turned business? How did she conceive the idea of Flying Doctors?
Though Ola is from Ekiti state-Nigeria but she did not grow up in Nigeria. In fact she did not grow up with her biological parents. She was born in England and raised by her foster Caucasian parent. So she has dual citizenship; British and Nigerian.
It was far from an affluent home that she grew up in a seaside town of Lowestoft in the east of rural England, a completely white community. She went to a primary school ran by Catholic nuns. She recalled “we didn’t have much money even though it was a working class family and we sometimes struggled to make ends meet. But right within me was that determination and focus to succeed. Against all odds, I passed my A-Levels with flying colours. After that I started my degree at the University of York at age 15. I supported myself all through with part-time jobs.
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So while other students could concentrate fully on their studies I had to work. Yes, that was the only way to complement what my parents could afford for me. But it was a great opportunity for me to learn time management. I wrote my final medical examinations at 21, thus emerging the youngest medical doctor in England then.”
A nerd to the core
Ola was the exact the definition of a ‘nerd’ growing up. Despite all her busy schedules she studied so much that she ran out of textbooks to read, an experience she is still very proud of today.
She completed her post-graduate training in the West Midlands, went on to specialize in Pre-hospital and trauma care. She is also a member of the American Academy of Aesthetic Physicians. Ola was employed at the National Health Service [NHS] UK, and worked privately at motor-racing circuits. In 2008, she was awarded the prestigious MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship. This was for producing ground-breaking research in the field of regenerative medicine through her work with induced pluripotent stem cells.
When you lose a loved one
Ola Orekunrin was still studying to become a doctor in the UK when her biological younger sister fell seriously ill while traveling to Nigeria. The 12-year-old girl, who went to the West African country on holiday with relatives, needed urgent medical attention but the nearest hospital couldn’t deal with her condition (Ola would later discover that such was a regular experience in Nigeria).
Ola 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. When they couldn’t find anyone in Nigeria, they searched all across West Africa but were stunned to find out there was none in the whole region. This probably remains the most shocking discovery of Ola’s life till date. Not even in the course of any of her numerous researches as a medical doctor has she been able to discover any such thing.
The family was told that the nearest one at the time was in South Africa, Ola recalls. “They had a 12-hour activation time, so by the time they were ready to activate, my sister was dead”. The thought of this made Ola to shed tears, but that is not all she could do. She was going to ensure that through her contribution, others should never pass through that kind of trauma.
With the circumstances surrounding the death of her sister evergreen in her mind, Ola set out to follow an already charted course; the path to becoming a Medical Doctor. She gave it her best with a complete determination to make a difference.
The disaster that inspired Flying Doctors Idea
“It was really a devastating time for me after graduation, 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”, Ola recalls.
She did the latter. Motivated by the tragic death of her sister, the young doctor decided to leave behind a high-paying job in the UK, to take to the Nigerian skies and address the vital issue of urgent healthcare in Africa’s most populous country.
On her first visit to Nigeria, her first since the death of her sister, Ola noted with dismay that the healthcare sector was in dire need of an upgrade. Speedy access to the best healthcare facilities in emergencies was but a pipe-dream, even for those who could afford it. And so the seed that brought about Flying Doctors was sown. Ola reminisced in an interview, “Setting up flying Doctors was a direct result of my fascination for helicopters, trauma medicine, motor accident kinematics and pre-hospital medicine. I knew it was something that I had the skills and experience to do.”
The journey back home
As Ola was rounding off her studies in the UK, she was also studying air ambulance models in Kenya, Libya, Uganda, South Africa and India. Coupled with her growing passion to help improve the healthcare system in Nigeria, which she believed was poor, she became even more determined to bring a similar service to Nigeria and indeed West Africa.
It was time to fly and Ola quit her job, sold her property in London 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-of course Ola was also a trainee helicopter pilot.
Making a difference
“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 through Flying Doctors” she says.
Looking ahead then, Ola says her goal is to continue improving access to treatment while focusing on the pre-hospital and in-hospital management of injuries. She says that whilst the wold is focusing much attention and funding towards infectious diseases like; HIV/AIDS, malaria, diabetes etc, Africa is also facing a big problem treating physical injuries and wounds.
“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.
“In the UK, I would see one gunshot wound every three or four years. In Nigeria, I see one gunshot wound every three or four days. Add in the road-traffic trauma, falls from heights, industrial injuries, stab sounds, injuries from domestic violence and you see a huge problem that definitely needs addressing.”
Dealing with challenges
Despite all the success Ola has achieved with her flying doctors’ team she recalls that it was not easy in the early days. She recalls so many times she was turned down at various offices.
“I quit my job and said goodbye to my political aspirations for the position of the president of the British Medical Association and minister for the conservative party. I sold my car and my house, and bought my one way ticket to Lagos. Yet I was receiving rejection everywhere. I simply cannot remember how many times I was rejected.
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“Sometimes I would spend hours waiting in an office only to be told to come back the next day and then be turned down again.
“Once on my way to Ondo State, I was robbed of all I had and was told by my companion, who was travelling with me, not to speak or else my accent would give me away and be the basis for my kidnap.
Those challenges brought great lessons
“In all of these, I was able to learn a great lesson— when you need something, people tend to avoid you but when you don’t need anything and seem to be making profit, they tend to become your best friend. The attitude towards me since we made headway has changed immensely.”
She says, “I really do love Africa and Nigeria in particular because it is my identity. I have since realized that the earlier I re-integrate myself back to my roots, the better for me. I grew up in almost all-white environment and went to an almost all-white university. But today I am happy to be here among my own people”.
Flying higher with Flying Doctor
A pioneering entrepreneur with an eye for opportunity, Ola set up Flying Doctors Nigeria. It is the first air ambulance service in West Africa. It transports victims of medical emergencies, including industrial workers from the country’s booming oil and gas sector.
“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 accidents happened. We also have a huge oil and gas industry and at that time there was no co-ordinated system for moving people from the offshore environment to a hospital to receive treatment.” Ola said.
In its first three years of operation, the Lagos-based company has already airlifted more than 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 (and Nigeria has had much of this in recent years) to gunshot wounds, we save lives by moving these patients and providing a high level of care en route,” says Ola.
“The maintenance of most of our roads is quite poor. With this emergency transport by road during the day is difficult. At night, we have armed robbers on our major highways. Add this to poor lightening and you see that emergency transport by road is deadly for both patients and staff”. So Ola believes that the one-time solution to this can only be through air ambulance services. And that is the exact reason for the coming of Flying Doctor.
Where are they now?
Ola Orekunri is still very much involved in the management of Flying Doctors as the founder and CEO. She was one of the recipients at the 2012 Thisday award. This is one of other numerous awards she has received for her work in research and clinical evidence.“I used to think people who win these kinds of awards must be politicians. Or maybe people with some sort of ‘right’ pedigree. So honestly it came as a shock to me. I feel really humbled and overwhelmed and it will simply propel me to do more” she said.
In 2018 she also emerged winner of the ‘extraordinary business achievement award at the yearly Silverbird awards. Dr Ola became the youngest person ever to win the prestigious award and the only woman since 2008.
She is also in the running for 2 different categories of the 2022 Business Insider award.
The company is now completely physician-led. This means complex, life-saving procedures can take place right inside the helicopter or ambulance en-route to hospital. It now has about twenty charter aircraft available 24/7. This is same as those used by leading air ambulances in UK, USA and Canada. And it remains the first and only national air Ambulance Company in West Africa. It boasts of the shortest response time of as short as, 20-30 minutes. And still has 100% safety record, the best in the industry.
From Flying Doctors to blissful home
Dr. Ola found her husband in the course of dischargng her duties at Flying Doctors. She once flew a notable man Graham Brown (now late). And after successfully flying the man, the man’s son by name David requested to personally thank the MD of Flying Doctors. It turned out that that the MD was a lady and they became friends and eventually got married in 2019 in Lekki beah Lagos.
Advice to would-be entrepreneurs
She advises Nigerian youths to learn from her example and never give up if they have a dream. According to her, “not many people will accept you at the beginning. But they will surely come once you make it big”.
See another young lady making waves in entrepreenurship: I BLOGGED FOR 4 YEARS WITHOUT MAKING ONE KOBO – LINDA IKEJI
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