Editor’s Note: Nigeria Health Watch team member Ada Ezeokoli took a trip to South-East Nigeria to learn about the Foundation behind a week-long medical mission that brings doctors into Nigeria to perform hip and knee replacement surgeries completely free of charge, with funds raised through charity. Philanthropy in healthcare is a growing movement in Nigeria, as we see in the case of the Obijackson Hospital, TY Danjuma Foundation, and Dangote Foundation. We explore how different faces of charity can result in the same goal; to make a positive impact in the lives of Nigerians.
When I alight the keke napep in front of the Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu Teaching Hospital in Awka it’s around 7:30 in the morning, and Dr. Godwin Onyema is standing at the entrance to the operating theatre having a conversation with one of his team members. He sees me as I walk up and his eyes crinkle behind his glasses as his face beams in a fatherly smile. He immediately starts to introduce me to those who have spent the last week tirelessly making sure that hips and knees are brought back to proper working order.
Dr. Onyema is a Nigerian doctor based in Chicago, USA. From Nawfia in Anambra State, he is the Chairman of the Board for the GEANCO Foundation, which he founded in 2005. “GEANCO is my family foundation. We are committed to improving health and life in general in Africa, specifically in Nigeria and more specifically in Anambra state,” he says.
Onyema and GEANCO came to Awka in November 2017 with a medical team flown in from the US to carry out a week-long mission. “We are here on our regular medical mission geared towards hip and knee replacement surgeries. This will be our fifth medical mission since 2005,” he says. The team has come in to do surgeries in 2005, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017.
Dr. Michael Baratz, the lead surgeon, says this has been his most successful mission. “This has been an incredible week. We were able to accomplish many surgeries with good outcomes and take care of as many patients as possible. We have a very motivated team and there were certain resources that were more available to us on this mission.” At the end of the week the team would complete 34 hip and knee replacement surgeries completely free of charge to the patients.
“I asked them simply to help.”
One of the patients recovering when I visit is Mr. Ikechukwu Okoro, a journalist and writer. Onyema tells me that Okoro, who lives in Lagos, had been in pain for 12 years before hearing about the GEANCO Foundation. “He had thought about committing suicide, that’s how bad things were,” Onyema says.
Okoro says he had a harmless fall when he was younger, but later developed pain in his legs, so bad that he could not walk. He was 14, and his parents sought help. “They took me to a surgeon who said I had defects in my hips and I needed surgery,” he says. After that surgery he developed pain again as an adult, and was told he needed more surgery.
“At first I wanted to go to India and I was trying to get the money but then I was getting news that India was a 50/50 thing,” he says. “Along the line a neighbour of mine gave me info about GEANCO. This was in January 2014. I sent an email to GEANCO telling them about me and how much I need their help and asking them simply to help.” Onyema said his son, Afam, GEANCO’s Chief Operating Officer received the email. “We discussed it with the surgeons and we said ‘We think we can help but you have to find a way to travel from Lagos to Awka’,” he said. Okoro showed up in Awka during the 2015 mission. The team replaced one of his hips then. And on this mission, Okoro came back and had his second hip replaced.
Onyema said the change he has seen in Okoro is incredible. “He just recently published a book and he dedicated it to GEANCO,” he says. “This is someone we had never met before, so you watch the fact that he is now able to go back to his profession, the fact that he is able to move around, the fact that he can now take care of his mother rather than her taking care of him… it just gives you a lot of joy.”
A passion to give back
For Dr Onyema, the work he does through GEANCO is a result of an interest kindled in medicine during his third year at Dennis Memorial Grammar School in Jos. “I was assigned to the school dispensary,” he says. “You were basically the on-campus doctor even though you didn’t know what you were doing.”
Fortunately for him the school staff included a senior history teacher who was a missionary and whose wife was a doctor assigned to an Anglican-owned Mission hospital nearby. “Dr. Mrs. Phillips, as we called her, extended her care to our school, so my job as In-Charge of the dispensary was if somebody has a headache, to give them something, but if somebody actually got really sick, go get Dr. Mrs. Phillips.”
He says Dr. Mrs. Phillips’ work ethic left an indelible impression on him. “Working with her for a whole year, I never saw this lady complain, she was always smiling. Whether it was three or four in the morning, it didn’t matter. If you went to her, she would always say ‘ok’, he says, adding, “She left such a positive impression on me that by the end of that year, I wanted to be like Dr. Mrs. Phillips. When I became a doctor, I still wanted to do things like Dr. Mrs. Phillips. That’s what is driving all this.”
A family affair
For Afam Onyema and his siblings, who grew up in Chicago, their father’s stories of Nigeria evolved from childhood lore to a shared vision as they grew into adulthood. “As I got older I thought more about what kind of a positive impact I could make on the world, and this seemed ideal,” Afam says. In 2001, he graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Psychology, and in 2007 he graduated from Stanford’s Law School.
Afam turned down lucrative job offers in corporate law to focus on building the Foundation. “Financially I was giving up a lot; I had job offers with a lot of money and security. You don’t give those things up lightly, especially to start something on your own where you have to raise money for yourself. It was a challenge, but in the end this is what I wanted to do.”
Today Afam and his three siblings, Chukwugozie, Ebele, and Nche, are part and parcel of their father’s dream as directors of the GEANCO Foundation. Dr. Onyema’s wife, Josephine Nma Onyema, is an emergency room nurse. The Foundation’s name is a combination of their initials; G-Godwin, E-Ebele, A-Afam, N-Nma (Dr Onyema’s wife), C-Chukwugozie, O-Onyema; a constant reminder that this effort is indeed a family affair.
The long-term vision; A state-of-the-art hospital
Aside from the “Rise & Walk” Medical missions, the Foundation supports anaemia screenings, treatment for pregnant women who are unable to pay for their care, scholarships for girls victimized by Boko Haram, and computers and athletic facilities for secondary schools. “All these projects build credibility with our donors and potential partners, and with the government. Now we have a track record, we have people who have gone on missions with us and can vouch that this is really what we are doing. This is important because fundraising is always a challenge, and it is difficult to raise money for projects in Nigeria,” Afam says.
The GEANCO Foundation’s long-term goal is a state of the art hospital to be sited at Mgbakwu, not far from Nawfia. The first part of the project is slated to be a Women and Children’s Centre, Afam says, adding that it will cost an estimated $8m to build. He says the hospital will eventually have “everything you will see at a hospital in the US.” And while the hospital will charge patients who can afford it for their care, Afam says the Foundation will still carry out charitable medical missions.
Funds for the work that the GEANCO Foundation carries out comes primarily from donors in the US, Afam says, adding that they do have growing support in Nigeria. For instance, Juhel donated critical supplies for this last mission. The Foundation holds events in the US and works with influential celebrities to help raise funds for its activities, including Oprah, Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo.
I ask Afam if he thinks charitable giving is sustainable as a healthcare solution. He says it doesn’t need to be. “We have had charity since we have had humanity,” he says. “I believe there is a human yearning to give without getting anything in return. If I was not doing GEANCO I would be giving my money to something else. We could come and do medical missions forever, and they will never be sustainable, but I don’t think they should be. People can’t afford these surgeries, so they are either in pain the rest of their lives, or you can help them.”
And for Dr. Onyema and his family, they have decided, through the GEANCO Foundation, to help.
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