I thought 40 was a realistic age to die — Ajayi, 80 – Punch Newspapers

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A former President of the West African College of Surgeons and two-term Chief Medical Director of the University College Hospital, Ibadan, Oyo State, Prof. Olajide Ajayi, shares the story of his clinical/surgical career with GBENGA ADENIJI
Where and when were you born?
I am Olajide Adedapo Ajayi born in Lagos on February 20, 1936 into the Ajayi-Jegede family of Etitale in Ita Ntebo area in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State and the Ajetunmobi family of Ilowa-Ijesa. My father was the late Emmanuel Ajayi who was a teacher in the School of Pharmacy, Yaba, Lagos and the late Mrs. Clementina Ajayi (nee Ajetunmobi), a trained nurse. I am the first of six children but we are only two left. From Lagos, my father was posted to Jos, Plateau State and I later returned to Lagos to start school at the CMS School. I returned to Jos after completing primary education because my mother was anxious to see me since she wanted to monitor my upbringing.
I enrolled at the St. Luke’s School, Jos and took the entrance examination in the school. I returned to CMS Grammar School, Lagos in 1947 and left in 1954. After my secondary education, I travelled to England to study medicine. I was first at Sir John Cass College, London from 1955 to 1957 and then the University of London (The London Medical College in Whitechapel) from 1957 to 1962.

Did you study medicine because your parents were into similar disciplines?
I was not aware of any other discipline while growing up. Like you rightly pointed out, my father was a teacher in the School of Pharmacy. As a chemist and druggist, he took me to the laboratory where they prepared drug mixtures. My mother took me along for her midwifery work because I always accompanied her as the eldest child. I was either assisting my mother while she was helping pregnant women to be delivered of their babies at home or helping my father to wash test tubes in the laboratory. I just knew that there was nothing else I wanted to do than to study medicine.
How was the experience studying abroad?

My father died in 1948. He was born in 1906. I was in Preparatory Two then and before I entered Form 1, my mother died the next year, 1949. They both died in the North and were buried there. I was 13 years old when my mother died. I had a fortune of being catered for by two people who my father had written in his will to look after me. The first was my father’s brother, Mr. Daniel Ajayi who was the father of G.O.K. Ajayi; my cousin. The second person was my father’s closest friend, Reverend S.L Kale, who later became the Bishop of Lagos. While studying abroad, my guardians did their best to take care of me. By the grace of God, everything worked well beyond all understanding. In 1962, I obtained the basic degrees in Medicine and Surgery at the University of London and returned home in 1967.
Where did you work when you returned home from overseas?
I joined the University College Hospital and was appointed a lecturer in the Department of Surgery of the University of Ibadan and a consultant surgeon to the hospital. I later rose to the position of a Professor of Surgery at the University of Ibadan in 1977 and then Head, Department of Surgery, UI in 1982 and Chairman of the Medical Advisory Committee and Director of Clinical Services, Research and Training in 1985.
At the request of the Ogun State University (now Olabisi Onabanjo University), I became the foundation Professor of Surgery and the Provost of the Obafemi Awolowo College of Health Sciences, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, in 1987. After the establishment of the state-owned university teaching hospital in Sagamu, Ogun State in 1989, the Federal Government appointed me to return to the UCH as its Chief Medical Director in 1990. I served in that capacity for eight years.
I later went to the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital on a sabbatical leave as visiting professor until 1999. Upon returning to Ibadan, I formally took an early retirement from the University of Ibadan same year. I spent 30 years in service.
Ajayi1Kindly share the experience of your clinical/surgical career in the university.
My first challenge when I returned home was practising surgery in a different environment and circumstance. In those days, we had first class hospitals. In those days, UCH was rated the sixth teaching hospitals among the British Commonwealth. I remember that in the UCH I met, treatment was free and it was devoted to training and research. At the time, admission to UCH was for consultation or general outpatients to select cases suitable for undergraduate and postgraduate teachings. We carried out a lot of research and published nationally and internationally. It was really a dynamic time. There was nothing called a ‘day off.’ It was the responsibility of the doctor to ensure that his or her patients were taken care of. It could be first on call but that does not mean that the doctor had no responsibility to the patient he or she operated on a day before or earlier in the day. At the time, it was a total commitment to surgery, research, teaching and training. One should also be able to know what happened to one’s patient a day before or the morning before. The nurses were excellent too. One could imagine what UCH was at the time. It went on and I think the change started with the civil war—the movement of professionals.

What was your experience of the civil war?
I was among the two doctors sent to the Marine Commando in Lagos. We went to work in the hospitals in Lagos. We had a tough time because as civilians, the junior doctors were military officers. Thus, it was difficult asking them to carry out an assignment or report to us. When we returned to Ibadan, Oyo State, we wrote a report that those to be posted to the war front should be commissioned officers. They accepted our recommendation and those posted thereafter had ranks. It was easy for them to give orders to the junior doctors who were military men. We handled the serious injuries in UCH.
   Can you recall your most memorable surgical operation in your career?
I do not often say a certain time is my glorious moment in my clinical/surgical career. This is because I was trained to consider all patients as important. The devotion deserving of the great and mighty was also extended to the poor and weak. I know what you are trying to ask me. You want to know the most dramatic moment in my surgical career. I think I documented some in my autobiography titled, ‘Up and On.’ As a human being, one feels for patients. They do have challenging moments. It is quite clear that all successful surgical cases, to any insightful surgeon, are also triumphant experiences.
When did you marry?
I got married in England. I married a year before I became qualified. I got qualified as a surgeon in 1962 and got married in 1961. My wife, Beatrice, was in Sir John Cass College, London. She studied Mathematics and after a year of A’ Level, she went to the then Chelsea Polytechnic. My course period was longer and hers was shorter. We decided to get married because at the time, she had completed undergraduate and graduate courses and was also teaching.
Were your guardians able to attend the wedding in England?

I have a big family; the Ajayi-Jegede family. I also had many cousins in England then, who were studying. The head of my family also attended the ceremony. It was a modest event and to God be the glory, it went well.
Tell us about your roles in the West African College of Surgeons.
One of the practices of surgery is connected with the socio-cultural leanings of the people where one operates. There must be adaptability in that regard. When I returned to Nigeria, I could not do many surgeries because of what we call indication for surgery. This hinges on why one intends to carry out a surgery on a patient. It was not the same as when I was in England. What became obvious was that we had to do carry out trainings and we discovered that we didn’t have the sophistication. We did not have the same kind of patients. Some patients are not educated and do not understand what surgery means. They administer modern and traditional medicine at the same time. They also associate surgery with death. We were dealing with a new culture and a new environment. The Association of Surgeons of West Africa was formed in 1960. I joined the association in 1967. I attended the conferences where surgeons talked about their experiences and discussed what to do and what should not be done in practice. They also talked about what to do in a situation where a patient has sickle cell anaemia. Whereas where I trained, such was not common. There was no typhoid patient too. We had educated patients such as women who came early enough to the hospital to complain of lumps in their breasts. When I returned home, I discovered that some women ignored lumps in their breasts until they became big cancer. We decided in the association that we should start trainings. The association of surgeons transformed into a surgical college in 1973. I had been playing an active role since 1971 in the association. By the time it became a college in 1973, I was first its honorary treasurer for six years, secretary-general from 1977 to 1983, chairman, Faculty of Surgery (1985-87) and vice-president from 1987 to 1989. The rest, as they say, is history. I later served as the association’s President from 1989 to 1991. I am still active on its Council. Today, nearly all the surgeons in Nigerian and in West Africa are fellows of the West African College of Surgeons. It is highly satisfying that we are able to do this — spreading to the West African region.
In 1997, I became the first black African to be admitted into the honorary fellowship of the American College of Surgeons and President, International Federation of Surgical Colleges in 1993. I also played a part in the establishment of the West African Postgraduate Medical College. In 1998, I was awarded the Commander of the Order of the Niger. In 2001, the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, Kano, invited me to assist in the development of its postgraduate programme in surgery. I also served as a visiting Professor of Surgery at the Bayero University Kano.
At this time, my wife was already complaining that I was either busy delivering a paper, travelling or carrying out research works. I went to Kano and was there from 2001 to 2004. We were able to do a few things there. But unfortunately, when I returned, my wife died a year later.
How have you been coping without her?
We were married for 44 years and we had four biological children. But between us, we had other children who are not our biological children. I console myself with our children, friends and well-wishers.

Was there a desire to remarry?
No, there wasn’t and still no desire to remarry because to me, remarrying means starting all over again. I will also have new in-laws. My way of life will have to change. My househelp has been with me for 40 years. If I have a new wife, he will have to cope with new in-laws and he will not like it. I will start running around to cater for new children. I think the book of Ecclesiastes chapter three says, ‘there is a time for everything.’ I am quite happy. I have good male and female friends. There are some of them who have lost their husbands. We chat and joke. The rule is that one should stay close to one’s family and keep an eye on one’s health. Luckily for me, I have grandchildren. If I feel as if I want to play ‘daddy,’ I stay around my grandchildren and they also like it too.
Do you have a medical doctor among your children?
Yes, one of them is a surgeon. He is resident outside Nigeria. I am sure that if the circumstances are good enough, he will return home. His mind is here but as a surgeon he cannot bear the lack of water, cotton wool and so on.
Did you ever regret coming home to practise?
No, like I said earlier, everything was working when I came home.
What do you do now?

I am still busy. I get invitations to give lectures. Since my retirement, I have written two books and I am active in community-oriented programmes.
What is the Beatrice Olajide Ajayi Foundation all about?
It is a foundation in memory of my wife and the work she did for 15 years. She retired as the principal of Queen’s School, Ibadan, in 1989. She was also involved in many charity programmes.
How do you relax?
I am a church man. I am involved in church activities. That, to me, is a good relaxation.
Do you exercise?
Yes, I do. I take a walk around my compound.

Do you have a favourite food?
I am not a food man.
What is your favourite drink?
I drink beer, wine and everything I can lay my hands on.
Did you ever think you would live long?
When I was young, I was told that anybody who lived up to 40 was old enough. I used to look at any 40-year-old who was celebrating his or her birthday with pity because I thought such a person was soon going to die. My father died at 42 while my mother died at 32. I then thought that 40 was a realistic age. But I felt strong that I should do my best that God gives life and He would take it when He wants to.
How sociable are you?

I am always everywhere I am invited until the organisers start asking for money donation. That is when I will leave because I do not have money (laugh).
At 80, your recollection of dates and records is amazing. You also look younger than 80. What do you think is the secret?
To God be the glory. As a doctor, I have stopped advising people on what they should do and not do. I only tell them to do everything in moderation. In my younger days, whenever I was invited to give lectures on the changing face of life, I used to tell the audience what they should desist from. Now, I see all as pure academic. There were some people who never indulged in any bad habits yet died early. I am not saying people should not take care of themselves, but they need to know that only God determines longevity.
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