(CNN) — Ola 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’d 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. “The nearest one at the time was in South Africa,” remembers Orekurin.”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.” Orekunrin did the latter. Motivated by the tragic death of her sister, the
young doctor decided to leave behind a high-flying job in the UK to take to
the Nigerian skies and address the vital issue of urgent healthcare in
Africa’s most populous country.

A pioneering entrepreneur with an eye for opportunity, Orekunrin set up
Flying Doctors Nigeria, the first air ambulance service in West Africa,
transporting 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 incidents happened,” says Orekunrin. “We
also have a huge oil and gas industry and at that time there was no
coordinated system for moving people from the offshore environment to a
hospital to receive treatment.

” Currently in its third year, the 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,” says Orekunrin.

“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.”

Flying helicopters, speaking Japanese

At 27, there isn’t much Orekunrin hasn’t achieved.

Born in London, she grew up in a foster home in the charming seaside
town of Lowestoft in the south-east of England. Aged 21, Orekunrin had already graduated from the University of York as
a qualified doctor. She was then 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 looked set for a
promising 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 — Orekunrin is also
a also a trainee helicopter pilot.

“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, and that’s why
I came to start the air ambulance.”

Last month, the World Economic Forum recognized Orekunrin’s
achievements by naming her amongst its prestigious Young Global
Leaders class of 2013, a group it describes as the best of today’s leaders
under the age of 40. “It came as a surprise to me actually,” she says of the honor. “I’m really
flattered and really happy.”

Trauma epidemic

Nigeria, Africa’s second-biggest economy, is the continent’s top producer
of oil, boasting huge petroleum and natural gas reserves. The industry’s potential, coupled with a growing financial services sector,
is expected to help drive further demand for companies such as Flying
Doctors Nigeria, which works on a retainership basis with the public
sector, wealthy individuals and oil and gas companies. Yet Orekunrin says that there are still several challenges that need to be
navigated to successfully run a company like hers in the West African

“The aviation business is very expensive in Nigeria,” she
says. “Keeping costs down is always a challenge,” she adds,
noting that red tape and bureaucracy are also testing small
businesses’ endurance. But despite the 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

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 that whilst much attention and funding
is directed toward infectious diseases, 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,” she says. “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-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

Culled from CNN

Flying doctor takes to the skies after sister’s death

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