Inspired by her loss, Ngozi Onyia through Paelon, gives others hope
Ngozi Onyia is a 1982 medical graduate of the University of Ibadan, a Fellow of the West African College of Physicians in Paediatrics and a Travel Health Phydician. An alumna of the Lagos Business School EMBA 11, she became a medical entrepreneur after 28 years of medical practice in both the public and private healthcare sectors in Nigeria. Her ten year stint (2000-2010 ) as the Company Medical Adviser of Nigerian Breweries, a blue chip company was her most notable role before the establishment of her own practice in 2010. Paelon Memorial Hospital (PMH).
PMH is a boutique, multispecialist hospital with three branches in Lagos, the Ikeja Branch of which pivoted to become a government approved private Covid treatment centre in June 2020 and remains in the forefront of the private healthcare response to the Covid 19 pandemic.
The third branch is a PPP run Comprehensive Healthcare Centre in Amai, Delta State. A day clinic in the VGC shopping mall that started in June 1 , 2021 is the fourth branch.
Paelon was established in memory of Ngozi’s 3rd and last child, PAtricia ELozie ONyia (Her first two alphabets in her names and surname formed PAELON) , who was born with a rare congenital syndrome, the CHARGE syndrome in May 1994.
After 9 difficult years that included 5 major surgeries, Patricia died in November 2003 as a complication of one of her 3rd surgery that had been performed 8 years prior.
Ngozi is a mother of two adult children and a grandmother.
I’m not quite sure I know why I chose paediatrics. I was sure I did not want any of the surgical specialties and I found adult medicine too morbid with chronic ailments that often led to deaths. With paediatrics, most ailments were acute and timely and appropriate intervention will often produce good outcomes. In a very short period, you would see results- the best example would be a severely dehydrated child who one minute is at the point of death and 4 hours later after appropriate fluid and electrolyte correction could be sitting up talking.
So far, it’s been rewarding, especially now I see children I looked after becoming parents and I am now in turn looking after their own children.
Patricia lives on
Patricia lives on in my heart. I talk about her a lot, I have her photographs in my office, living room and bedroom, even the pieces of the statue of an angel that was on her gravestone and got knocked down is in my study. I try to visit her grave in Hout Bay, Cape Town at least once a year. I did on June 17th after not being able to in 2020. My granddaughter Charlyne reminds me of her in many ways- mannerisms, personality. I remember her whenever I see a child with special needs, and I have a special place in my heart and mind for families with special need children.
I have built Paelon in her memory and other than that, I don’t do much else to keep her memory alive. She just has a permanent home in my memory. On her birthday (May 25) and the anniversary of her death, (November 11) I wear the pink butterfly lapel I was given 17 years ago at her funeral. Some of my dearest friends are people I met through seeking a better quality of life for her. I visit them whenever I’m in Cape town, we remember her and her quirky waves and laugh, sometimes I get teary eyed but not so much anymore. My thoughts of her now are mostly happy ones.
To everyone who has lost a child
To everyone who has lost a child, I say, it will get better if you let it. The sun can shine again if you roll the clouds away. You have a choice, curl up in a ball and sink into despair or throw your head back and choose to get on with life. The choice is yours, but I urge you to choose life. I spent 20 years ‘curled up’ (from her birth in 1994- 2014) and then in 2014, I listened to a sermon by Pastor Godman Akinlabi of The Elevation Church titled ‘The Beautiful Life’ and the clouds rolled away and the sun shone again. Since then I have chosen ‘life’. I wish I did not spend those 20 years the way I did. The cost was too high.
Being a medical entrepreneur
I have always wanted to run a private hospital for as long as I can remember. My Dad who was my first role model ran a private hospital in my hometown. Early in my career, I saw gaps in service delivery, and I knew I wanted to create an environment where I could set the standards and do things the way I considered the right way. Becoming Patricia’s mother and now experiencing healthcare from the perspective of the beneficiary rather than my customary role as the provider further strengthened this desire. Working as the Company Medical Adviser of Nigerian Breweries between 2000-2010 gave me an opportunity to actualise this and I was satisfied with the results.
I took an Executive MBA at the Lagos Business School from 2006-2008 and as you will know, an MBA is a life defining /life altering degree. The degree further sharpened/consolidated my vision and after my children graduated from University in 2009, I was in a better place to take a risk and venture. To be honest, I also jumped before I was pushed by taking a voluntary exit in February 2010.
It’s been a journey- A hard road to travel, with a long way still to go. I’ve had partners who bought into the vision and are running with me- Dr Nkeiru Asumah, Dr Sylvia Cole, Unoma Grant, Dr Nnenna Mbonu, Dr Lekan Olaleye, Dr Michael Talabi. Other Colleagues, Dr. Olushola Abodunrin, Yvonne Agbamu, Damilola Dairo, Dr Paulyn Nwaukwa, Payson Oboh, Mode Odedeji, Dr Ifeoma Okogwu, Stephanie Vitalis amongst others.
It’s been a journey of highs and lows, joy and pain, success and failure, unbelievable kindness and equally unbelievable treachery. It’s been a period of building, tearing down. A period of learning and growth. I’m not the same person I was in 2010. I’m more at peace with life.
I realize life is too big to take on, so I don’t anymore. I give it my best shot and then I take what comes. I’ve become resilient and yet accepting. I always try to find a way, over under, around, through. I’m a dogged fighter. Narrow minded enough to know what I believe but broad minded enough to give others their space. I’ve learnt to work hard and play hard. My life is one big blur- faith, work life all flow into each other. I’m like the traffic wardens who breakdance as they direct traffic. I infuse fun into my work otherwise it becomes a chore. My network has widened significantly. Most of my close friends today started off as my patients. It’s been quite a ride. I have become even more philosophical, embracing Stoicism, becoming more self-aware.
I could go on and on.
Significant roles paelon has been playing since the pandemic
I have always been daring though shy and lacking in self-confidence (a result of growing up too tall, thin and bespectacled) , however, being Patricia’s mum gave me boldness and a sense of determination. I’m also very ethical. Treating covid was simply the right thing to do. If healthcare workers did not treat Covid, then who should? It was a no-brainer for me. There was simply no other option. So the challenge was to do it as safely as possible. A phone call from Dr. Tosin Majekodunmi of Euracare Multi-Specialist Hospital on the 23rd of March, 2020 was the catalyst and three gentlemen, Sachin Ganglani of Sacvin Nig Ltd , Jubril Saba of IHS Towers and Dr Kunle Okunuga, Intensive are Physician were enablers . A phenomenal team of Paelon women worked closely and tirelessly with me and the rest they say is history.
Your view on the third wave of covid-19 recently announced by Lagos state government
We are quite blessed that our treatment centre is stand-alone. We made an existing hospital to a dedicated treatment centre. Studying the nature of pandemics, we realised soon enough that it was not going away in a hurry, so we have never shut down, even when the waves break and we have weeks without any patients, we just return to running a light out-patient service for non-covid patients and going right back to Covid treatment as soon as we get a patient. We intend to continue with this model for the foreseeable future. We have all our requirements in stock and our supply chain is quite well established.
To those who do not still believe in Covid
I think there is Covid fatigue since talk of Covid is all that dominates every conversation, every news medium. There is a need for a balance and some context. I think it is a defensive mechanism to shut down on Covid, the same way a child sees something frightening and shuts its eyes thinking that if he doesn’t see it, it does not exist. We have other big issues in Nigeria, and Covid is seen by most as a distraction especially since its impact in terms of morbidity and mortality is way less than in the western countries. Of course, there are conspiracy theorists, but I think most are simply tied. I think putting out correct information, positive and negative will help. Not just frightening people to death. The pandemic of anxiety and depression caused by the pandemic is almost worse than the disease. My advice will be 1) maintaining the infection prevention protocols- physical distancing, wearing a face mask and hand hygiene and 2) Get vaccinated.
Personal experience with Covid
My 8-month-old granddaughter got Covid in May 2020 from her Nanny. This spread to all members of my daughter’s household other than my grandson. Whilst this was going on, my son and his partner also came down with Covid. I was scared to death, but I did what I always do when I’m troubled. I prayed. I had come across an article about the use of Ivermectin in Bangladesh and Australia and I felt safe to try it on my granddaughter since it was a drug used in paediatrics to treat worms. Her fever stopped within a day and so I prescribed it for both my children and their households. Thankfully, they all recovered. Then later in the year, their Dad and some close friends of mine also became infected. That was also very scary. Most traumatic were the deaths in the centre especially of the husband and brother of my secondary school classmates under my watch. I felt a deep sense of failure and maybe guilt. We did our best but that sense of failure cannot be easily shaken off. Yes, those are the burdens you have to bear as a medic. Sometimes you lose. It is most heart-breaking. I prayed; I still pray. I become philosophical and accept what I cannot change whilst I try to change what I can.
Health care delivery in Nigeria
Nigeria as a country is bedevilled by all kinds of problems and as a self-preservation mechanism, I shut down on them and try to wear blinkers, maintain a tunnel vision and a laser focus on my sphere of influence. That said, healthcare financing is the real issue. Attending the investiture of a friend of mine as a Fellow of the Institute of Stockbrokers this evening, another friend on my table commented on the fact that people are not willing to invest in health care. She surmised that if they did, then healthcare would become cheaper. I quickly corrected her and told her that healthcare can never be cheap. Just by virtue of employing some other most highly skilled professionals and using very expensive and advanced technology, healthcare is by nature expensive. The difference is who pays.
For those who access private healthcare in the West, they know healthcare is really expensive. However, in countries that work, insurance covers the bill, so people don’t have to pay out of pocket. Starting last year, Paelon took out an international health insurance policy for me. It cost the company $3,800. That is about two million Naira and yet when I sought authorisation for an annual health assessment, I was told it is not covered by the policy. Yet local health insurance companies charge annual premiums of one fifty thousand naira and beneficiaries expect all kinds of benefits.
There is an important discussion to be had around A) Increasing the insured population to increase the quantum of cash in the pot. It is currently about 5% of the Nigerian population. Health insurance should be mandatory. B) Correct pricing of premiums for the desired benefits. 3) Accountability in the NHIS.
Your daughter in your business as Coo
My daughter has been with me from the beginning. She took on the role of Patricia’s second Mum (there was a 9-year age gap) and so with me, birthed Paelon in Patricia’s memory. We bought furniture together, set up the offices together in March 2010 with her brother and their then boyfriend and girlfriend, and my first set of employees. She rose through the ranks, acting in the front desk with responsibility for IT, HR, branding and accounts.
Then she rose to becoming the administrator. After 9 years in the company, and with appropriate formal training on the job, including Senior Management Program and Health Management Program in LBS and Leadership in Healthcare in the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Heath, she was appointed to the board and made the COO of the hospital. She is literally my right hand and I’m lost without her. I depend on her for so much. Her value is one of those things taken for granted and evident mostly in its absence like good health.
I try to give her a freehand, but I know it is a double whammy for her having me both as Mummy and Boss. It has its benefits but certainly a lot of disadvantage. We are both very careful to ‘preserve the unity in the bond of peace’ as finally, I know she’s my only daughter and she knows I’m her only Mum. She is my best friend as well as my daughter. A lot of reverse mentoring goes on between us and I hardly take any decision without her input. She’s no push over. She’s bright and resourceful. A quick learner. She has a very supportive husband and a phenomenal nanny for her children.
The next frontier for paelon
The next frontier for Paelon is to play to our strength and position ourselves correctly. Leveraging on our strong in-house team of specialists and allied health care providers, we aim to be the most reliable hospital for premium primary and secondary care for the discerning. We will also provide tertiary care in the areas of our competence, collaborating with external specialists. We are in the process of restructuring the hospital. We plan to leverage technology to increase our reach-telemedicine. We are a boutique hospital. We will offer concierge services – luxury and convenience, taking healthcare of the highest quality to people where they are. We are in a transition process where the older members of the team are stepping down and letting the younger team members step up as part of our succession.
What are you grateful for?
I’m grateful for my faith-the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, for life, good health, for family, for friends, for work, for peace of mind, for a roof over my head, for creature comforts. I don’t take any of God’s benefits for granted anymore. I realise that they are gift; we are all guests on the planet at His pleasure.
You recently marked your birthday in style. How was it?
I had fun, first with a surprise party again for me at work: a saxophonist, dancing, flowers, gifts and then open house in the evening, lovely company, painting, dancing great food, plenty to drink. I had so much joy in my heart.
Thank you for finding my story newsworthy. These will be my summary for this interview. “So, I decided that there is nothing better to do than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in work. Then I realised that these pleasures are from the hand of God” Ecclesiastes 2:24