Lagos Eye Bank and a sight on the future

(By Babatunde Ajayi)

We live in a society where cultural and traditional beliefs hinder science and health care delivery because our people do not believe in donating their organs. Most people forget that the body will rot within months and years in the grave, and will only serve to benefit warms and insects if vital organs are not removed and donated for further use to prolong and/or preserve the lives of others, or given for the purpose of research and medical analysis. Organ donation awareness is needed and must be embraced by Nigerians of all religious beliefs, creed, and ethnicity and party affiliations

THE Guardian often reports and follows news and events that affect Nigerians intimately.  The paper tends to go a step further by finding space to educate Nigerians on matters of social, medical, and physical wellbeing of the people.  One of such efforts by The Guardian caught my attention recently.  It was the report on the inauguration of the boards of trustees and governors of the Lagos Eye Bank.  The establishment of an eye bank is such a time demanding, funds-consuming and challenging venture that I wonder how some people – should I say some very special people in Nigeria who are indeed true lovers of their fellow human beings – came to find a way to do this!

I live in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and I am on the National Liaison Committee (NLC) of the Canadian Blood Society (CBS).  I remember the enormous challenge and financial issues CBS went through recently to establish Canada’s National Public Cord Blood Bank (NPCBB). Canada (through CBS) already has an amazing blood bank that provides blood for Canadians across the country, but there was no cord blood bank until recently when CBS stepped up to make this bold move. The move is still on-going despite the set-up of a huge, state of the art facility in Ottawa and huge contributions from big and small corporate bodies in Canada as well as individuals.  In fact, individuals have donated more and many are committed to ensuring that the Cord Blood Bank is well funded.

  I share this information because I can only imagine the struggle and challenges that the men and women who took up the unusual task of establishing an eye bank in Lagos must have gone through and must still be going through.  That Dr. E.O. Akinsete recognised the importance of establishing an eye bank at this stage of the nation’s life and decided to throw himself into it is very uncommon. The world is moving forward and leaving us behind as a nation and as a people. We have become the Bankujos of our world, people who are just going along and not really part of the progress and development taking place in the world.

Organ donation is so crucial to medicine and life restoration in our world today that harvesting body parts has become a must do and a major part of medicine in the world.  A 20-year-old Ottawa girl received new lungs at the Toronto General Hospital after a seven-hour operation in April 2012. Helene Campbell would have died without the gift of new lungs because the idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis she developed had hardened the tissue of her lungs and her health declined rapidly and her life was in danger. Helene and many other recipients of organs are alive today and doing well. Helene has now become a leading light in the campaign for organ donation.

   We live in a society where cultural and traditional beliefs hinder science and health care delivery because our people do not believe in donating their organs. Most people forget that the body will rot within months and years in the grave, and will only serve to benefit warms and insects if vital organs are not removed and donated for further use to prolong and/or preserve the lives of others, or given for the purpose of research and medical analysis.  Organ donation awareness is needed and must be embraced by Nigerians of all religious beliefs, creed, and ethnicity and party affiliations. The Eye Bank in Lagos has taken a major step in the right direction and every Nigerian owes Dr. Akinsete, Prof. Osuntokun, Ebun Onabanjo, Leila E. Fowler, Yaya Awosanya, and all those who are actively involved in the project a thank you card each.  The project needs everyone to stand up and be involved in any small way, whatever way possible.

     We do not have a strong volunteering tradition in our nation, but we must start it now.  We must find time as individuals to give of our time to support a cause.  The average man or woman in the West who lost a sister, daughter, wife or husband to a disease will rise up against that disease; out of that loss will be born a bold and determined challenge to fight the disease and a determination to find a cure. They will raise funds through open donations, social events, marathon runs, etc., to support research work to find cure and to procure equipment and fund specialist hospitals.

Why are we not like that?  Instead, we bury ourselves in our problems and allow the problems and losses to define us rather than standing up to ensure that what happened to our daughter, sister, wife, brother, son, or husband never happened to the next person. We must shed that mentality that portrays us as a people who do not mind to see others suffer what we had suffered or even suffer worse than we had suffered. The life we live must be focused on serving others; thinking less about ourselves and more about others around us.  The Nigerian situation is what it is because our people tend to think more about themselves – from an  individual perspective – than about the community and about others.  We have to learn from our environment and take what is good in that environment to add to what is good in our own culture and society.  Those of us who volunteer to serve in our communities are doing so because we do not want others to go through what we have gone through or may still be going through in our lives.

  The Lagos Eye Bank is an amazing and courageous move on the part of Dr. Akinsete and his co-travelers.  Dr. Akinsete has done what the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and many in the West have done and are still doing – using their lives, birthdays, personal experiences, and even tragedies to bring hope to the community.  Corneas are now being collected and stored at the Lagos Eye Bank for transplantations in Nigeria.  There will no longer be the need to rely on the United States and other nations for corneas. Corneas collected in Nigeria will meet our needs and fit our specific demand and environment better.

Harvesting organs should be a major part of the health policy, mandate and focus of the Federal Ministry of Health.  More funding should go to such extraordinary projects rather than the endless purchase of vehicles, presidential planes, fat allowances for political office holders and the like. How long are we going to continue to depend on medical aids and handouts from Europe and America? Where are our cancer research centres? Why are they not being well funded and why do we lack the diagnostic centres that our people truly deserve to help them find cure for ovarian, breast, thyroid, prostrate, lung, and colon cancer?  I had colon cancer for several years in Nigeria but it was diagnosed as ulcer! It was a period of terrible health scare that eventually led to the diagnosis of colon cancer in Toronto, Canada. It took an operation at the William Osler at Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto to save my life and to cut out the part of the intestines which had almost blocked my system. My surgeon, Dr. King was shocked that I was treated for ulcer for nearly 20 years in Nigeria, but I do not blame the doctors who treated me in Nigeria because they are all great physicians who worked magic with little or nothing to work with.  The message is that the interests of our people should be put first at any budget allocation meeting and only this will ensure that health care, education and social services are well funded.

   This is the time to support the Lagos Eye Bank and to also set up Blood Cord Banks in Nigeria.  Cord blood stem cells are used for stem cell transplantation in the treatment of over 50 diseases and disorders such as leukemia, lymphoma, aplastic anemia, inherited immune system and metabolic disorders as well as sickle cell.  We must act now and also support those who are already doing something very meaningful to help our people find cure and care at home.

• Ajayi lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  He is on the National Liaison Committee of the Canadian Blood Services.

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