•Foundation offers free tests, drugs, trains students as Save-A-Heart ambassadors
By Tope Adeboboye
Recently, several sleepy communities in Lagos, Osun, Oyo and Ekiti states came alive, and not many would have been shocked at their sudden excitement.
Residents of those communities were happy as teams of medical personnel – doctors and nurses- from Nigeria and the United States stormed their towns and villages, conducting free cardiovascular tests on hundreds of residents.
The health initiative was an initiative of the BFO Memorial Heart Foundation, a non-governmental organisation conceived by Mr. Tope Tosin Owolabi, a Nigerian based in Atlanta, Georgia, United States.
Founded about five years ago, the organisation has conducted several free checks on residents of communities in the South West. It was learnt that over 5, 000 indigent people have benefitted from the gesture.
But what could have spurred Owolabi into starting such an organisation? He explains: “There are two reasons. I have the passion to help the less privileged and give back to my society. Then I lost my brother to diabetes. I saw the agony the whole family went through with his wife and kids. And to think it was just a condition that could be managed. I realised that many people were dying of hypertension and diabetes as a result of ignorance. People would claim they were killed by witches. So I decided to set up an NGO that would educate people on these issues and help those that have the conditions so they could live better lives.”
So, Owolabi set up various teams in Nigeria, and from time to time, the teams visit different communities, assemble the people and have them examined for diabetes and heart diseases. Drugs are made available and those that need referrals are directed to the appropriate medical facilities.
He laments that many people in the rural areas are so poor that they cannot even afford the money for hospital cards. Health facilities are also far from many of the rural communities. Many residents prefer to patronise herbal homes, which lack the capacity to identify conditions like hypertension or diabetes. Patients also lack knowledge on the types of foods they should consume once they are diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension. They have no information on the lifestyles they should embrace. The seminar that the BFO Memorial Heart Foundation holds provides information on these and many more, Owolabi informs.
He tells the reporter that initially, the health checks were done once in a year. But he soon discovered that the yearly effort was just not enough. People usually besieged the venue from nearby communities and he was getting calls to spread the largesse to more communities. It became obvious that his team would need to do more. So, he got more volunteers and coordinators, and together, they added more bite to the outreach. Now, the teams of volunteers can reach more communities.
“We have a team on ground,” he explains further. “Everywhere we want to go, there is a team of volunteers. Even if I’m not in Nigeria, the exercise goes on without any hitches. I also have a national coordinator who handles things when I’m not around. He leads the team of volunteers to the communities where we intend to hold the free checks and consults with the traditional rulers and community leaders. We do the exercise in town halls and open fields, mostly. And there is no community where we cater to the needs of less than 500 people.
“At the seminars, we have doctors who speak to them on health issues, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular issues, how you can prevent these diseases, the food to eat, and so on. We bring drugs too. And when the drugs are exhausted, we give money to them.”
How does he finance the project? Owolabi informs that he has been spending his own money since the programme commenced. “I work hard in Atlanta, and whatever little money I make, I bring it back here. It’s a passion. But now, it’s becoming more than I alone can handle. I’m appealing to corporate organisations and state and federal agencies to partner with us on this journey. Each outreach costs millions of naira. On each team, we have at least four qualified medical doctors and many nurses. I’ve done it singlehandedly for five years, but right now, we need help to reach more people,” he says.
But even at that, the foundation isn’t resting on its oars. It just introduced a new concept, called Save A Heart Initiative. What is that about?
“We discovered that in spite of our efforts, we couldn’t do this medical outreach and make as much impact as we would love to make if there’s no assistance, especially in terms of buying drugs. So we came up with this new initiative. What we do is, we go to senior secondary schools. We give the students a topic on heart related diseases and we ask them to research and write an article on it, which they would send it to us via email. We look through the articles and pick the best three, four or even ten. Then we make the writers our Save A Heart Ambassadors. With this, we engage the students in a robust atmosphere for them to be aware of these issues, including diabetes and hypertension. We then encourage them to start campaigning for us. They will educate their parents, teachers and fellow students about these issues. We go to those schools with qualified personnel to talk to them about things they never knew. We did one in Chrisland School, Opebi, Lagos, and we had many schools there. We also did one in Lekki where we had many schools in attendance.”
Owolabi informs that during his last trip to Nigeria, he got some help from Mrs Florence Oshikoya, CEO of Florence Kiddies. He says two other men, Oyedeji Bamgboye and Sunday Ogunshade, also supported the project.
The The Igbole-Ekiti, Ekiti State-born philanthropist regrets that human lives hardly matter in Nigeria, recalling that in the United States, nobody is denied medical care on account of lack of money. He appeals to governments at all levels to set up specialised medical facilities for certain ailments like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.