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Beatrice Olumhense, a sickle cell warrior rising against the odds

September is Sickle Cell Awareness month. In this interview with Kemi Ajumobi, Beatrice Olumhense, a seasoned senior business, technology and marketing leader, shares her heart stirring story as a sickle cell warrior, her challenges, triumph, coping mechanism and counsel to fellow warriors. Excerpt.

Beatrice Olumhense is a seasoned senior business, technology and marketing leader with experience in global, emerging markets and start-up scenarios across EMEA and APAC, in blue-chip multinational organisations such as Microsoft UK, Nokia, Airtel, World Trade Centre & Publicis. She is a professional with over 20years creative and commercial experience, who successfully delivered outcomes leading culturally diverse and cross-functional business teams.

She’s experienced in managing C-Level, Board and Stakeholder relationships, and has worked in industries such as Mobile Technology, Telecommunications, Aviation, Oil & Gas, Luxury Real Estate, Services and Advertising; with a recent client portfolio including International brands such as PepsiCo, AXA, VISA, Heineken and Nestle.

Founder, PatrickRow Maison, a luxury lifestyle brand and as a partner at Monami Agency, a digital agency focused on small businesses, she earned a non-executive Board member role at the moderate fashion brand, Abaya Lagos. A member of The Boardroom Africa and an executive committee member of the Women in Advertising Association, under the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria.

She is widely travelled to 21 countries across Africa, Europe, Middle East, North America and Asia. She has an avid passion for Africa, female empowerment, luxury and life. She is also a sickle cell warrior who is continuing to beat the odds daily.

In the beginning…

I’m the first daughter of my family, and I have 3 wonderful siblings. I had a normal childhood like everyone else, from a catholic primary school to boarding house at FGGC Sagamu in Ogun State, before heading off to University of Lagos. My mum worked in the civil service, while my dad was in the private sector and in primary school, we would often spend time at their offices in turn, before heading home. My mum worked at the State Security Services, so I got to spend more time inside my dad’s office than I did hers, so I got to observe him more closely and wanted to go into “business” as he did. My mum did not spare me from doing house chores from cleaning to cooking for the entire family, only after graduating from being her sous chef of course. Having worked in brand management and senior management roles for brands like Unilever, Beecham and SCOA, with stints in London and Paris, my dad was always there to guide us through school, shape our world view, approach to life, coaching us through challenges and important decisions.

My sickle cell story

My earliest memory of my condition was spending time in the paediatric ward at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), which at the time was the foremost hospital for Sickle Cell care under the leadership of Professors Lesi and Akinyanju. I remember being surrounded by other children with a variety of issues including one who was fed through a nasal tube, which at the time looked like something I had only seen in sci-fi cartoons. I curiously enquired from my mum what was oddly wrong with some of the kids and so, while my pain would come seriously in bouts, my mind somehow comprehended that I had it easier than some of the children in that ward room. So, I live with that gratitude daily as I journey through life.

When I was about 8yrs old, I was the best goalie and only female in my junior neighbourhood football team. My parents at the time were oblivious that I played, till one weekend when I strutted out in my all white jersey jersey to join the match and both my parent screamed in horror. That was the end of that, and I could only watch the game from the terrace, however, the single guidance I got from my dad, was to only ever participate in individual sports or activities where I could go at my own pace. While this was the first time I experienced a limitation, this became a principle I weaved into my decision making through the years. While living with the pain is awful and can often create boundaries, I have been blessed with a heightened sense of creativity and drive. So while one may be down for anywhere from a few hours, days to weeks, when I’m switched on, you can not ask for a better person to be on your team, in your corner or on your project.

Read Also: Sickle Cell Advocacy and Management Initiative organises charity auction September

Coping mechanisms

I am keeping up much like everyone journeying through life and its many opportunities and challenges, managing the scope of one’s life falls across various aspects from physical, financial, emotional, spiritual to societal. The challenging dynamic is how each are finely woven together and balanced in the continuous experience of the sickle cell warrior. We need our physical wellbeing to be intact in order to be present in the society for our friends, family, colleagues and that presence also has a direct correlation to how we earn, the frustrations and emotional roller coasters we can often experience from yet another crisis episode, or losing out on material opportunities or a relationship due to fear.

However there are my 10 cardinal tips and coping mechanisms I have adopted over the years that have worked for me.

1, I’m very vigilant so I know my signals. I found that my symptoms changed over the years, in secondary school my lips would go numb, later it was shoulder and chest pain. When I started driving and as I got older, it became my shin that would tingle.

2, I ensure I take my medication as religiously as possible. While I’ve over the years rebelled against being “chained” to my daily medication, I realised that I have thrived when I practice consistency.

3, I have ensured my employers provided top quality medical insurance in my negotiations. This ensured their businesses got my best but not at a detriment to my health.

4, I have had a protocol in place for emergencies for everywhere I have lived. If you can’t afford a driver who lives nearby, ensure you have a family member or friend who lives not more than 5 minutes away and can assist you in emergencies. New ride sharing services have definitely come in handy on occasion and are available worldwide.

5, Your medical history is important, so I have used the same hospital and doctor now for over 15yrs and I highly recommend it for continuity of care.

6, When I have to go into the ER or on admission, I pay attention to every medication or injection I’m being administered, irrespective of how much pain I’m in. It allows me watch out for any side effects, catch things early, understand what is working and therefore aid my healing process.

7, When your health takes you out for a considerable amount of time or limits you from pursuing certain opportunities. Be open to learning new skills and retooling yourself to stay ahead.

8, I have never imprisoned my mind to my physical limitations, which is why I have travelled to 21 countries, definitely not without consequences. Dr. Ebun Bamgboye has always taken wonderful care of me and often notes that when he gets calls from strange countries, he’s almost sure it’s concerning me. I also like to joke that I’m mixed race considering I’ve had blood transfusions in Finland and Abu Dhabi.

9, Invest time and resources in yourself and your well-being, from simply resting and trying activities that energise you. I also try not to live more than 20 to 30 minutes away from work. Conserving energy both physically and mentally is very important to your overall wellbeing.

10, Have a goal bigger than your pain. It will drive you to living beyond the boundaries of your limitations.

Share on your siblings being sickle cell warriors

I have two other siblings who are warriors. While my sister and I have had more difficulty over the years, my brother has only ever been in hospital once and has lived largely symptom free. My parents always ensured we got the best care, and this is in addition to the fact that I have a prayer warrior of a mum who constantly made us try every “potential” new remedy, she more importantly taught me the value of faith and the power of prayers. There is a saying that if misery loves company, then triumphs demands an audience, so my sister and I have mostly given audience to triumph. So, rather than focusing on the sadness, we’ve mostly celebrated the victories of each battle.

Being a sickle cell warrior, while you were in your teenage years, how did you navigate school to pull through to adulthood and what has changed?

While going off to boarding house in public schooling was terrifying for my parents, I found that the liberty I enjoyed, despite the many challenges, brought an ability to cope and the independent mindset I developed allowed me soar in several aspects. In some of my classes in secondary school, I would often be drowsy in class, so when some teachers would catch me nodding off and immediately quiz me on what was being taught, many found out I answered quite easily because I had honed my mind to be attentive despite the drowsy side effects of my pain medication. I definitely tested my limits in secondary school trying out for basketball and tennis, but having my fathers voice in my ear on individual sports or developing warning signals after such attempts gave me clarity.

Adulting brings its own challenges and I have definitely transitioned from FOMO to JOMO. In younger years, you want to be everywhere your friends are, try all the new places out and be adventurous. Having the fear of missing out extends you often beyond your personal limits, so going back to my dad’s principle of individual sports and activities, going at everyone else’s pace will lead to burn out, so do be more selective. While I enjoy my champagne, port and red wines, I’ve learnt hydration before and after makes my life much easier. In embracing the joys of missing out, you value private dinners with friends, going to a great beach house destination to enjoy nature, having deeply entertaining and meaningful conversations, you smell all your flowers and get way more rest and relaxation which is great for well being.

How important is the sickle cell awareness month

I believe the sickle cell awareness month is critical to everyone including sickle cell warriors. It assists in building not just understanding, but greater acceptance of the human condition that is sickle cell. For the sickle cell warrior, while it is tragic that a widely available cure does not exist, understanding how to better manage the condition is paramount and often this comes from sharing our stories and learning from one another. There is much more information shared about the progress of medical interventions and advances at this time, so this gives the needed hope to millions. I have witnessed many more conversations both online and offline, but the levity taken by certain individuals can certainly be a distraction and often poisons the well.

Sickle cell patients are termed warriors not just because of the adversity they face, but because of the willpower they possess to withstand a crisis condition with the intensity of labour pains which occurs monthly, quarterly or more frequently if poorly managed. So if you are a mother who experienced labour pains, or a father who watched your wife’s birthing pains, you should understand that we deserve all the “push gifts” you have to offer. It’s critical to love and care for sickle cell patients and learning how friends, family or loved ones can participate in this journey, will greatly aid the battle. Until a cure is found and widely distributed, healthy marriage pairings is one of the best options to adopt in safely and completely eradicating the disease.

Day never to be forgotten

A few years ago, after painful and extended hospital stay in 2012, I was very emotional and decided to reward my triumph with a large purchase of a car. I opted for an LR3 with good second hand value, it arrived the next day. I went with the seller to the diagnostic centre at Total filling Station on Awolowo road and got a fantastic appraisal. So, I issued a cheque for 70% of the value because it had 2 little issues that required a quick fix. The seller immediately decided to cash it at my bank on the same street while I waited in the car. It was a hot day and after an extended stay in hospital taking NSAIDs, you still experience some drowsiness because the medication is still coursing through your blood stream. So, I got fussy, went into the bank to see a long wait line. I found a junior bank assistant I knew and after chatting, he recommended I cashed the cheque on the seller’s behalf. Long story shortened, I handed over the cash, got dropped off at home for the issues to be repaired and neither the car, nor the seller returned. Don’t get me started on the police proceedings on this issue. Moral of my story and key take away, I never make significant decisions under the influence of medication.

Losing dear ones to sickle cell complications

I have lost very dear friends in the past who are engrained in my heart because of the rarity of finding such friendships that exhibit the level of devotion they did, nevertheless, only one of those has been a Sickle Cell warrior. We met socially and for a long time wasn’t forthcoming about having the gene for fear of judgement. While getting them to open up took time, having someone be so vulnerable is an honour and a blessing I cherish. That depth of trust, reciprocated in my protection, felt like it was violently ripped away at their passing, because we got no warning and said no proper goodbyes.

What should anyone around a sickle cell warrior experiencing crisis do?

Firstly, I have found that as warriors, we panic because at the back of our minds, we fear this could be the one that takes us out, and this adds to the pressure of each pain episode, so whoever is assisting should exhibit calm, and I’ve often found that humour is distracting and diffuses the stress, while care is being administered. Next, do ensure that the patient has a comfortable place to rest and take their medication if they have it available. If not, and you are in a home setting, a steaming hot shower, heat rub massage, a cup of lime and honey tea and any pain medication you have, will come in handy as long as it isn’t aspirin. Where not at home, get the person to their preferred hospital or nearest hospital if they don’t have one. If their preferred hospital is far away, please get them suitable pain medication first, before embarking on the journey

What is the most challenging thing for you?

I believe I have been incredibly privileged in having great healthcare provided, however, my sickle cell journey has impacted social and personal relationships. This is a deeply personal journey and when you have been that vulnerable with loved ones and they walk away or ghost you (yes I’ve been ghosted too), though they never insensitively mention your health as the reason, it’s always niggling somewhere at the back of your mind that it could have factored into their rationale. Nonetheless I’m hopeful that there is someone who is man or woman enough for each of us.

Away from myself for a minute, I will like to shine the light on the untold financial cost of managing the health challenges of Sickle Cell warriors. Sickle cell disease has bankrupt families from the daily care to hospital stays, so please understand the implication of bringing anyone of us into the world is huge. So do help out your known HBSS friends occasionally, because of the frequency of the crisis occurrences, many are too ashamed to ask for assistance; hence why they see themselves as burdens when they have to.

Advice to intending couples

I believe love is one of the greatest emotions you will ever get to experience, so don’t rob yourself of it by not planning adequately for the future you desire. This includes asking the tough questions ahead of your union, from understanding your individual love languages to finance habits, having kids, how you intend to raise them, to making sure you both share or revalidate your status ahead. A close friend often argues his bewilderment at how many smart people deliver presentations and evaluations daily at work and do not put the same effort into delivering the same clarity into their future marriage or family planning. While my sister is married and has 3 beautiful kids who are pain free and AS, I’m single, yet I know without a doubt that this is not a condition you would wish on any child.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” 1 John 4:18.

How have you consistently thrived despite all?

I think my 10th mantra of having a goal bigger than my pain has been a driving force, but I’m also a “small girl with a BIG GOD”. Without faith, there would be nothing to hope for, so my faith has kept me centered in the midst of many storms. I also use humour quite often. I have a good friend and former colleague, who also has a long term medical condition, and sometimes I would turn to her jokingly and say “Hey, I think I’m checking into the hotel today” and she would often retort that she would see me there or she was there overnight; and of course this was in reference to the hospital. I have also had a carrousel of great friends and colleagues who I have been grateful for, for over the years, who have been emergency contacts, my companions and confidants. I hope I have been in some way a blessing also to them also.

What do you want to say to fellow warriors?

Sun Tzu in the ‘Art of War’ states “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” In summary, know yourself and understand your individual condition because no two of us are the same. More knowledge empowers you to mitigate the risks more swiftly. And I will you all to live beyond your limitations.

In 20 years, how have you been able to successfully deliver outcomes, leading culturally diverse and cross-functional business teams?

I struggled through working on holidays to pay for my University education tuition, so that definitely matures you quicker. I found that I was a ‘quick study’ and applied that as I graduated. I agree with Jack Ma, in addressing the Young Global Leaders in 2018, when he suggested that “When you are 20 to 30 years old, you should follow a good boss and join a good company to learn how to do things properly.” There are of course a very few exceptions to this rule. This foundation nonetheless teaches:

I. What excellence looks like and how to strive for it
II. Valuing diversity, understanding cultural nuances and differences in opinions,
III. Building empathy and fostering a collaborative way of thinking.

I have had extensive experiences across industries and built both a capacity to take on several things in-depth simultaneously, but more importantly, always operate from the big picture view. Translating your core expertise across when you are in team settings, means all of these often have to come into play cognitively in providing timely solutions.

Share on Monami Agency

PatrickRow Limited is a strategic marketing consulting and brokerage with strong focus on high value marketing properties with expertise in digital creative media, content development, consumer engagement and advocacy. In partnership with Monami Agency Helsinki, we’ve delivered digital growth, transformation and advisory to small and medium businesses.

What is PatrickRow Maison about?

PatrickRow Maison is a lifestyle brand designed to create indulgent and luxurious experiences in spaces everywhere. Born from a reflective journey into peace and inspired by nature, culture and my travels, our products are handcrafted with intention and passion to deliver on both aesthetic and sensory values.

We are purveyors of luxury scented candles with exquisite fragrance accords in cool, reusable containers and colourful agate gemstones that radiate positive and calming energies. We enjoy being a luxurious signature in your carefully designed and curated homes.

Love for travel and visiting 21 countries

I have been blessed to travel widely personally and for work across Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Travelling gives you an education that no classroom can ever teach and allows you better accommodate diversity in views and actions. From swimming in the Dead Sea in the Jordan, sailing original pirate ships in Tunisia, enjoying lakeside views at a Finnish mooki or walking through the enchanting orchard street in Singapore. The waft and taste of exotic delicacies, the changes in light dispersion, the architecture, artisanal craftsmanship are all things I enjoy.

Why the passion for women empowerment?

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s the holistic role female country leaders took on in combating the virus and turning the corner quicker on the virus. Society needs more balanced leadership teams and female voices at leadership tables, so on one hand, I have a responsibility as a female leader to expand the views and opportunities of women around me and in the workplace and the other, I create platforms that enable them take their self care more seriously which is what PatrickRow Maison and the 17,000 Facebook Community, Best Self Today, hopes to support.

Final words

No matter who you are, where you are and what your situation is today, understand that the pandemic gave us all a reset button to reconsider life’s value propositions. It serves as an opportunity to build more empathy into how we relate with one another, and adopt a more holistic and longer term view into how we build back relationships with ourselves, our families and our businesses. While we have centred our conversation around Sickle Cell today, there are so many other challenges we must walk across aisles to understand, empathise with and collaboratively solve for. I have heard of more cases recently of people opting out of relationships, marriages and lives as a result of the immense challenges of the last 18 months. So, become more self aware, guard your heart jealously, and join us at PatrickRow Maison to kickstart your wellness journey, using natural essential oil blended candles and agate crystal gemstones.

And if you are completely down, start from what you know and grow into where you want to go. “Give us this day our daily bread”.

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