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Q&A with Nigeria's Flying Doctor Olamide Orekunrin

Sep 12, 2014

What inspired you to start Flying Doctors Nigeria?

This was mainly inspired by my younger [12-year-old] sister dying, here in Nigeria, because she couldn’t access an emergency service.

There wasn’t an air ambulance service in Nigeria when you started out. How did you know where to start?

I think if you look across the developing world as a whole there’s a lot of opportunities from the West that can sort of be hacked and brought to Africa – sometimes even in an improved form.

Who are your typical patients?

There are private patients and they usually come from corporations or insurance companies, and that’s across West Africa. There’s also the government [contracts]. So sometimes if there’s a disaster – some sort of road disaster, or a terrorist disaster – then the government here or in another country will tell us to come in and evacuate the patients to better hospitals. [We partner] with NGOs as well.

You now run a team of seven senior physicians as well as support staff. Do you have time to be on deck these days?

I try and do a bit of both the clinical and the management. A lot of our patients are very sick and require a very specialist skill set. We usually work in two or three doctor crews.

What happens when you get a call?

It depends. Sometimes [the patient will] just be brought in to Lagos. If they’re being flown in from quite a remote part of Nigeria then Lagos and Abuja are usually their destinations. We [also] get patients flown in from Mali, from Chad, from Niger, into Nigeria for treatment.

And then obviously the whole of the offshore industry relies on helicopter air ambulances also to bring people who have been injured, or [fallen] ill offshore, onto the shore for treatment.

So you could pick someone up from Kaduna, in northern Nigeria, now and fly him or her to London in a few hours?

Yes. There’s a huge British expatriate community here and we fly them to London if they need it.

Have you ever had a patient whose injuries stayed with you?

If you speak to any of our doctors they’ll all give you a different story. [For me] there was an injury [caused by Islamist militant group Boko Haram] where the gentleman had been shot in the face and most of his face was gone. He actually ended up having to be flown to London for reconstructive surgery. Looking at a human being who had most of his face gone was definitely something that stayed with me.

What happened to him?

Half of his face was actually removed by the bullet. That stayed with me because he was supposed to get married the next week. It was really, really heart-rending – his main concern was for his wife-to-be not to see him in that state. And I was so glad when I saw what [the surgeons] had done; it was a complete transformation.

Did the marriage go ahead in the end?

He did get married in the end.

— interview by Monica Mark. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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