UK Doctor Quits Cushy Job, Starts Crucial Flying Doctor Service In Nigeria Instead

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If any of you are medical students or happen to know one, you know what a grueling process it is to finally get those two letters permanently attached to your name as a prefix, “Dr”. Ola Orekunrin knows all too well about this process, yet she still gave up her cushy medical job in the UK for a much more noble cause.

The 27 year old is the entrepreneur behind Nigeria’s first successful Flying Doctor Service, which came about after a tragedy struck her family. Ola’s 12 year old sister was traveling in the country with her family a few years ago when she fell seriously ill. She suffered from sickle cell anemia and needed urgent medical attention. There were no air ambulance services in the entire region where they were vacationing.

“The nearest one at the time was in South Africa,” remembers Orekunrin. “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 set up Flying Doctors Nigeria, the first air ambulance service in West Africa, transporting victims of medical emergencies to appropriate health care facilities where they could get the attention they needed in time to save their lives.

With the roads in Nigeria being so dysfunctional in certain areas, the only option in a medical emergency is air transportation, which didn’t exist until entrepreneur Ola came along. The service has now been in operation for 3 years and has so far airlifted 500 patients to health care facilities in West Africa. The Flying Doctors also have a whole team of medical professionals and have had the funds needed to continue with this crucial business. It is something that we often take for granted in our western world, but in a country like Nigeria it is the difference between life and death.

“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.

While it wasn’t easy to set up the Flying Doctor service, Ola didn’t allow barriers in her way stop her from forging ahead. The entrepreneurial spirit in her told her this needed to happen.

“I spoke to some of the most senior people in aviation in Nigeria, and they all told me it wasn’t possible…Entrepreneurship is more about the facets that there inside you than outside. And I think that a lot of the stories about entrepreneurship in America, in Africa and the future stories will be about personal resilience and self-belief because that’s what took me through those times when some of the most senior people in aviation and medicine are telling me that it’s really not going to work.”

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Other people had tried to start similar ideas in Nigeria previously but it didn’t work, and it wasn’t just because they couldn’t get the right funding. Ola says most of these people she spoke to weren’t doctors, didn’t have the necessary expertise, and were only in it for the money, which is a guaranteed recipe for failure.

“It’s very hard to start a business when you’re solely in it for the money. I mean, you can be 50 percent in it for the money, but there has to be a part of you that is really genuinely passionate about a cause that is beyond money. And I think that that’s one of most important points about entrepreneurship.”

The aviation industry is expensive in Nigeria, but Ola is determined to change the healthcare system in Nigeria, come hell or high water.

“I want to achieve a proper use of the healthcare sector in Nigeria,” she says.

“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 addressing.”

“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 March 2013, 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. Forbes also named her one of the 20 young power women in Africa in 2013, and one of Africa’s top 30 entrepreneurs under 30 in the same year. Pretty impressive for a 27 year old who quit her job to do something revolutionary.

If there is anything that can inspire you about Ola Orekunrin’s story it is that life sometimes throws things our way which can either be used as an opportunity for innovation, or self pity. For Ola, she prefers the former, and uses her story to encourage other young people to become change-makers. Why? Because we all have it in us.

Take a look at her TED Talk from 2012 below:


 

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