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NYT's Nigerian Surgeon in Oakland

NYT's Nigerian Surgeon in Oakland

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Published by: Laura Novak on Dec 09, 2009
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Three Colleagues Help One Doctor on a Mission - The New York Times

12/8/09 1:06 PM

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Three Colleagues Help One Doctor on a Mission
By LAURA NOVAK Published: Monday, November 17, 2003 SIGN IN TO RECOMMEND TWITTER E-MAIL SINGLE-PAGE REPRINTS SHARE

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OAKLAND, Calif. SEATED amid the wealth of technology in the intensive care unit of the Children's Hospital and Research Center at Oakland, Dr. Olajire Idowu twisted and folded his slender fingers and silenced a shrieking pager while trying to find the precise words in English to describe his overseas humanitarian work.

Dr. Idowu, a 55-year-old Nigerian-born pediatric surgeon, spelled it out in the rolling cadences of his native language. He likened starting a medical mission to casting stones in the ocean, one pebble dropping into the abyss at a time. His quest is a case study of what it takes when a small group of committed doctors decides to go it alone in starting a medical nonprofit humanitarian group. The group that he and three colleagues from Children's Hospital founded a year and a half ago, called the Medical C.A.R.E. Corporation, has taught surgical and other lifesaving techniques to medical teams in Nigeria and in the Central American nation of Belize, and has helped save the lives of several children in those countries. But getting to that point has consumed nearly four years of Dr. Idowu's life, not to mention $25,000 of his savings. By the time the team completes its second mission this month, he expects the group's bank account will once again balance at zero. "That's O.K.," he said. "If I didn't believe it wasn't the right thing to do, I wouldn't have done it." The idea came to the soft-spoken surgeon in March 2000, when he accompanied a fellow doctor on a church-sponsored mission to Nigeria. He wrote a report describing the suffering he saw there, but could not stop with that. "And that made me say I can't just fold my hands and wait for something to happen," he said. Determined to make contributions, Dr. Idowu, who grew up in Nigeria and went to medical school there, approached his colleagues at Children's Hospital, where he has been specializing in gravely ill children for the last 12 years. Some agreed to volunteer once he had a plan. Others reminded him that caring for poor children at the Oakland hospital, where more than half the patients are on Medicaid, was a mission unto itself. Yet, Dr. Idowu said: "A poor child from East Oakland gets to this hospital, gets Cadillac care. The same poor person in Africa doesn't even get Volkswagen care." Dr. Idowu first explored working through one of the many established charities that provide opportunities for physicians looking to volunteer their services overseas. But he eventually decided "to do something on my own without a group approach," he said. He learned that Katie Sabato, a respiratory care practitioner at Children's Hospital, had
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Three Colleagues Help One Doctor on a Mission - The New York Times

12/8/09 1:06 PM

He learned that Katie Sabato, a respiratory care practitioner at Children's Hospital, had recently returned from a similar mission to Belize. Ms. Sabato and another volunteer had given their services and $80,000 worth of donated ventilators and supplies to a hospital in Belize City. When she returned to Oakland, Ms. Sabato was contacted by Dr. Idowu, and the two realized they shared a vision. They decided to bring together the disparate destinations that tugged at their hearts. So they founded the Medical C.A.R.E. Corporation, its cumbersome name meaning "care for children of all races everywhere," devoted to bringing modern medical services and equipment to children in Nigeria and Belize. It took two false starts, including an aborted departure date of Sept. 11, 2001, before a group that included Dr. Idowu; Ms. Sabato; an intensive care nurse, Lenore Hawley; and a pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Ziad Saba, left for Lagos, Nigeria, in March 2002. Although they were greeted with open arms at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, the challenges were overwhelming. They had shipped ahead four donated ventilators, but Nigerian customs refused to release all but one. Electricity was sporadic and unreliable. The hospital's oxygen tanks were either empty or missing the keys to turn them on. Dr. Idowu was able to complete only one surgery in 10 days. Success was measured in minor increments. The team introduced the Nigerian doctors to the pulse oximeter, a standard device for measuring oxygen levels in blood. They adapted syringes to make suction devices and introduced nebulizer machines to treat asthma attacks.
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