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Remembering Dr Nurudeen Olowopopo

Dr Nurudeen Olowopopo

On Sunday, 15th of March 2020, a crowd of people gathered in the hall of Eko Club, in Surulere, to celebrate the life and times of Dr Nurudeen Olowopopo.

At one table in front sat Oba Saheed Ademola Elegushi, looking dapper as is his usual. Near him was the Elepe of Epe.

Sitting close to the Head of Service of the Lagos State Civil Service, your friend “HMO”, and the current Chief Medical Director of LASUTH, Professor Adetokunbo Fabamwo, you listened as various Lagos notables poured encomiums on Dr Olowopopo.

It all brought up a rush of mixed emotions in you.

Ten years!

Sunday, March 14th, 2010. How time flew!

The swimming pool accident during a solitary night-time swim. The shock that devastated not just the family but a large swathe of the medical community in Lagos, as in Chicago. The grief, the angst.

Most of the population of Lagos nowadays only know of Nurudeen Olowopopo from the major road in Alausa named after him. The naming of the street has a story to it. The government of Babatunde Raji Fashola had arranged a ceremony to name the street after Fashola’s predecessor – Bola Ahmed Tinubu. At the ceremony Tinubu, still raw with grief, broke down in tears and declined the honour, requesting that it be named after his bosom friend.

Nurudeen Olowopopo was a proud Lagosian and the doyen of the Nigerian community in Chicago. He was a founding member of Eko Club International, an organizer of periodic Medical Missions to Lagos, a founding member of the Association of Nigerian Physicians in America (ANPA), and personal friend of the heavyweights of the Windy City, including a certain Barack Obama. When the conversation turned convivial, in your house or his, he would occasionally say, without affectation or false modesty:

Baba ni mi ni Chicago”

(“I was a kingpin in Chicago”)

He was affable and down to earth. What you saw was what you got. He was vastly experienced and connected, locally and internationally.

He wrapped himself around the issues, and he had no difficulty in jumping ahead and seeking solutions for problems that were still around the corner.

Straight off, he was calling on his connections in Chicago to commence an exchange partnership between LASUTH and the University of Chicago. He took a firm grip of the affairs of the Board and ran its meetings in the crisp professional manner of a Fortune-500 company

A massive push to build accommodation for House Officers and Resident doctors. Recreational facilities for staff. An urgent need to embark on Quality Improvement. The LASUTH Project was a toddler barely out of nappies, punching above its weight. It had brought itself into national prominence of sorts with a large number of successful open- heart surgeries, the largest then in the country, courtesy of Joe Nwiloh, an Old Boy of St Finbarrs College Akoka. The real story was that with each round of surgery, the number Nwiloh’s team from Atlanta grew smaller as the capabilities were domesticated. There was also growing respect for the hospital’s evolving capabilities in Critical Care. The Project would need funds, lands, goodwill and connections to scale up its human materials and optimise its protocols and processes. Olowopopo was ready to go.

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He was a careful dresser who always wore a trademark baseball cap.

Straight off, he was calling on his connections in Chicago to commence an exchange partnership between LASUTH and the University of Chicago. He took a firm grip of the affairs of the Board and ran its meetings in the crisp professional manner of a Fortune-500 company. He broke through barriers and interfaced with Consultants and all interest groups at a time when labour relations were turning tetchy. Everybody stood to benefit, he told stakeholders, but things had to be done right.

At his insistence, the hospital leased three units of housing in a quiet, stately compound in Ikeja GRA. He moved into one, and you moved in next door. The third was reserved for the Provost of the Medical School.

You got to meet his wife – Cilla, a quiet, lovely lady with a winsome smile.

You got to meet his friends. Professor Shafi Amuwo, who taught Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Don Umoren, Lagos boy turned Chicago émigré, a man you had known when he ran an upmarket gynaecology practice in Victoria Island. Don would come into the house after visiting with the Olowopopos and begin to banter with your son, “Mr K”. You saw them standing next to each other like age-mates. They were comparing heights. Don promised the eight-year old boy that he would give him a hundred dollars the day he surpassed his height. Several times afterwards, you caught the boy surreptitiously measuring himself against the wall, obviously with an eye on the prize!

Don revealed that the whole Chicago crowd recognised “Deen” as their leader and the hub of their cultural and professional lives. They would all go out on family holidays in the Caribbeans together, playing golf and living it up. He helped young Nigerians to grow.

As you began to sip your drink at the memorial gathering, the microphone was thrust in your hands.

What could you say about Nurudeen Olowopopo, you thought, as you stood and surveyed the eager crowd? Close by you sighted Fausat, Olowopopo’s daughter. After the bereavement, you had joined several Lagos notables to celebrate Fausat’s marriage in Chicago, an event Olowopopo himself had been looking forward to.

He was one of the most powerful influences you had ever experienced up close, you told them. In your head you recalled sitting with Don Umoren in the stadium at the London Olympics, watching Hussein Bolt bring home the field in the two hundred meters. Through the silence, you heard Don’s voice.

“I remember ‘Deen’ and the good times…” His voice drifted off, lost in the roar of the crowd as the sprinter broke the tape.

Don himself would pass on a few short years later, sadly, without paying his $100 debt to his young friend Mr. K, who has since shot up like a sprout.

“He was a good man” you rounded up your speech. “May he continue to rest in Aljana Fridous.”