From Petrus Obi, Enugu
Vincent Ugochukwu Ohaju, a medical doctor in the United States since 1998, established the Vincent Obioma Ohaju Memorial Foundation (VOOM Foundation) in the state of Minnesota, the United States of America in 2004, in memory of his father who died of heart-related complications.
The foundation started with academic mission in 2011 and later graduated to clinical missions in March 2013.
During the recent mission to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) when major heart surgeries were carried out, Dr. Ohaju recalled how the journey towards providing volunteer heart surgery to indigent Nigerians started.
“Hardly can you see any family in Nigeria that has not lost a loved one to heart-related issues. I don’t want what killed my father to kill other people, if I can help prevent the situation. That’s the essence of this volunteer work. And when you look at the team, they are whites from all over the world doing this for free, so I urge Nigerians, especially the people of the South East to join hands. Don’t wait until it affects you directly, or your neighbour, don’t wait until you have billions of naira, whatever you can offer to assist will help. No one person can handle this alone, so all hands must be on deck. My hope is that what happens here at UNTH in some distant future will ripple out; I hope they will be able to train enough staff that will help us to train the rest of Nigeria. I will not rest for so long as I have that burden to see that the standard of care in Nigeria is very much elevated,” he said.
A professional trauma surgeon, Dr. Ohaju recalled how he returned to Nigeria with the intention to start emergency medical services.
“I brought my family home once, they witnessed somebody who was involved in an accident, and they kept yelling at me; ‘dad call 911’. It dawned on me there is no 911 to be called. So, naturally I wanted to do something in that area, but then I found out that University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital is the centre of excellence for cardiac surgery except that their cardiac programme at the time was not functional. So, we worked together with the management of the hospital to resurrect the Open Heart Surgery Programme in 2013. And I won’t rest until we can make this thing stick to the ground where we can make the locals be trained enough to be able to participate. I want to work myself out of business here in the sense that I want to get to the point where it becomes necessary for me to bring volunteers to Nigeria.”
Dr. Ohaju cannot quantify how much his VOOM Foundation has invested in the Open Heart Surgery Programme at the UNTH.
But four years into the project, Ohaju is satisfied that his goal is being achieved because patients are able to get heart surgery whether they are low income earners or not.
“For whatever cost it would take you to be transported to India, you can have open heart surgery in this town where your family can come visit you, without compromising your care. To that extent, we are achieving our aim. Also, I can tell you that the local star, compared to the way it was in March 2013 is advanced, so we are making progress. I don’t think we are where we ought to be but I think we are making tremendous progress, which requires support of well-meaning Nigerians to sustain this programme.
“I am hoping that Nigerians will latch on to the success that have already happened and do whatever they can to help. There is a place for everyone on the table, industries, churches and other organizations within the country can support this programme,” he said.
The Chief Medical Director of UNTH, Dr. Christopher Amah recalled that over 300 patients have successfully gone through heart surgery at UNTH since the arrival of VOOM in 2013.
Ihemegbulem Okafor, the first person that was operated upon by VOOM in 2013, discovered he had a tumor on the left side of his heart and doctors said it could only be removed through operation.
Luckily he went through the surgery on March 13, 2013 and was discharged on March 20.
“I was number 13th on the list, but they invited me to be number one; my heart jumped through my mouth, I was afraid there could be a mistake, but I summoned courage and today I am grateful to VOOM and the UNTH for saving my life,” he said.