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Why we created N160m lifeline for children’s heart surgeries – Obijackson Foundation director

Why we created N160m lifeline for children’s heart surgeries – Obijackson Foundation director

The Obijackson Foundation, stepping up to address one of Nigeria’s underfunded health areas, has committed N160 million to fund free heart surgeries for 50 children. This initiative, implemented in partnership with Hospitals for Humanities, aims to raise awareness about congenital heart defects, a condition affecting about 90,000 children. Pamela Egbo, executive director of the ObiJackson Foundation, and Segun Ajayi, CEO of Hospitals for Humanities, discuss the initiative further with BusinessDay’s Temitayo Ayetoto-Oladehinde.

Can you tell us about the Obi-Jackson Foundation’s core mission and the specific objectives it aims to achieve?

Egbo:

The Obi-Jackson Foundation was originally founded in 2010. We have been around for about 14 years, and our focus is to help the most vulnerable people in society. Our main focus is predominantly the southeast of Nigeria, which is Anambra State. Our flagship office is in Okija. However, we operate in Lagos and Ibadan. We have done projects in Akwa Ibom and Abuja as well. Our motto is transforming communities, one life at a time. Our focus areas are education, health, and nutrition. In education, we sponsor several kids every year to an academy called the ObiJackson Academy in Okija, and the goal is for them to have a good basic quality education. We sponsor 40 kids every year to go to college. Each child costs about N1 million a year, and we add new classes every year. In our health initiative, the foundation has a hospital called the ObiJackson Women and Children Hospital, and the whole idea is to cater to the needs of the people in and around southeastern Anambra State who cannot afford basic health care. We also have a nutrition initiative where we run a soup kitchen here in Lagos, and we have been doing that for about 10 years. We also have beneficiaries in the Southeast—over 200 people—and we give them dry food every month, including beans, rice, and oil to help them. Those are some of the initiatives that we have.

What prompted the idea of providing free heart surgeries?

Egbo:

I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Segun Ajayi sometime last year, and he runs an incredible organisation called Hospitals for Humanity. Their goal is to help as many children who have congenital heart defects get surgeries because, first of all, it is a life-threatening condition if they don’t have corrective surgery. Secondly, it is something that, I thought, was an incredible initiative that we wanted to be part of. I have learned since meeting him that over 90,000 children in this country every year are born with that defect. And because of how expensive these surgeries are in this country, most people cannot afford them. So they live with that condition, and a lot of them die. There is a high mortality rate if they don’t get corrective surgery. Most people who have these conditions can’t even afford the surgery. The surgeries are usually between 10 and 15 million naira and above. So it is only the rich who can afford to take their children abroad to have these surgeries. A lot of the people that we screened during this period cannot afford the surgeries. Even people who have seemingly good jobs would have to have a lot of money to afford a surgery of $15 million and above.

What are the criteria used in the selection of beneficiaries?

Egbo:

When we originally decided to partner with Hospitals for Humanity, there were people who we told that we were going to have the screening. So we first had a pre-registration form to ask them about their socioeconomic status, and we made sure that they were in that bracket of people who could not afford it. So we went through a thorough screening process before we were able to decipher and determine that these people could not afford the surgeries. But like I said, with that high number of people and how much surgery costs, a lot of people will fall into the bracket of those who cannot afford the surgery in this country.

Is there a plan for postoperative care under this initiative?

Egbo:

There is continuous care for them and monitoring of how they’re doing, even after they have the surgeries.

How much has the foundation dedicated to this initiative?

Egbo:

We have committed, as a foundation, to fund 50 surgeries right now. Each surgery costs $3.2 million. So that is about 160 million so far. But our aim is to do more. This is just the beginning of the Hospital for Humanity. There’s a huge need out there. We haven’t even touched the surface of the problem. But our goal this year is to do between 50 and 100 surgeries, if we can. But we have committed ourselves to starting off with 50. We hope to raise more funds to be able to help more children.

From your experience making interventions in the healthcare space, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing vulnerable people in terms of healthcare today in Nigeria?

Egbo:

I think there are two. One is that we don’t have good healthcare in this country. The government has to create an enabling environment for good policies and fund healthcare like it does in other countries. Two, most people cannot afford good healthcare. Even hospitals like general hospitals or federal hospitals are not so affordable. The government has not created initiatives to help doctors stay. There’s been a huge brain drain. There are people going abroad, and we are losing good doctors and nurses. So that is a real issue in this country at the moment.

How do you monitor the impact that your effort has had on the lives of beneficiaries? Are there mechanisms for tracking how they are faring?

Egbo:

Yes. We are very hands-on with our beneficiaries. We always document everything that we do. There is monitoring and evaluation. We always visit our beneficiaries to make sure that they’re still okay. Even this past Easter, we visited some of our health beneficiaries. For the older ones, we gave them gifts over Easter and made sure that they were fine. We have an auxiliary nurse that goes to their homes every week to check their vitals to make sure they’re fine. So that is just an example, but generally, in all the projects that we do, we do have a mechanism to track, monitor, and evaluate the things that we are doing.

Where are the surgeries being held?

Egbo:

The surgeries are going to be held in Abuja. The goal is for our staff in the hospital in Okija to learn about these surgeries so that hopefully next year we can start to conduct these surgeries within the hospital in Okija.

Segun Ajayi, tell us about Hospitals for Humanity and how your effort is key to the initiative of the ObiJackson Foundation.

Ajayi:

I am the CEO and founder of Hospitals for Humanity. We started in 2009 with the organisation, and we have been doing several programmes throughout the world. Our focus in Nigeria is congenital heart disease, primarily open heart surgery for those who cannot afford it or are within Nigeria. We also focus on training and skill transfer for the physicians and medical staff within Nigeria as well. We have been doing that since 2014. So this is our 10th anniversary of doing open heart surgery for children living in Nigeria. She thought this was a great initiative.

What are you looking to achieve together?

Ajayi:

Our goal each year is to do a minimum of 150 open heart surgeries a year, and we partner with different organisations that can help us reach that goal. We don’t have any hang-ups when it comes to children. But we also know that certain organisations and states would like to contribute. For example, we have partnered with Akwa Ibom before, and the mandate was to focus on the children of Akwa Ibom. As long as all the children within Nigeria get free healthcare, particularly open heart surgery, we partner with organisations like the ObiJackson Foundation. We started a conversation that ended up sponsoring 50 children from the Southeast. Then we began to carry out that work.

How bad is the situation of congenital health defects among Nigerian children?

Ajayi:

It is pretty dire, I would say, primarily because of finances and also because of the skill that is required to carry out the surgery. We know that approximately 80 to 90,000 children are potentially born with congenital heart disease in Nigeria. And the reason I’m saying potentially is because the statistics aren’t there. We know that, overall, in the worldwide community, one percent of every live birth will have a congenital heart disease. Based on the live births in Nigeria, we came up with that number. But we also know that a very small number of children a year will get the surgery that is needed, and primarily because of finances and skill transfer.

Ajayi, you intervene in different parts of the world. How do governments cater to the needs of such people, consider them in the national budget for healthcare, or fund health insurance?

Ajayi:

It is interesting that you brought up the whole concept of how other children in other countries get this surgery. For example, in the United States, these surgeries are done between one and three months old. You are screened at birth. You see that you have this, and then you’re scheduled within three months to get the surgery. So by the time they are one year old, everything is back to normal for the child. For example, in my state of Georgia, we have something called Peachcare. That means all children aged 18 and under get free healthcare, no matter what it is. We have Medicare and Medicaid. In the UK, you have the NHS. So these kids are being caught very early. The average age of children that we do surgery on is about eight years old. So you can imagine living with this congenital heart disease for eight years. The body’s changing, trying to adjust to that defect, and then it becomes a more complicated surgery. So there is a major push for funding when it comes to congenital heart disease in other countries, and most children get it before the age of one. For us, we are also looking legislatively at the Nigerian government to see how we can partner with them. Can we put together something where at least 500 of these children are covered legislatively to get the surgery and have their destiny back on track? We believe that we are destiny givers in our organisation, and we want to make sure that all of these children have their destiny given back to them because they die needlessly.

Do you believe it is easier to correct the defect when the intervention comes early in the life of the child?

Ajayi:

It is easier on every level. It is easier from a surgical standpoint. It is easier on the child. It is easier financially. Remember, the longer you live with it, the more medication you have to give and the more medication the parent has to buy. So imagine 10 years or seven years of doing all of that? It is better when it is done early.

What challenges do you face pooling funds in Nigeria?

Ajayi:

It is very difficult, but the saving grace is that, one, I’m Nigerian, and two, I know this is also my calling. I look at it as something that has to be done. So while someone may be discouraged because of funding, for me, I take it as a challenge. And I get inspiration from the parents, from the children, to keep pushing forward to make sure that we give them the best medical care possible. So yes, it is very difficult, but it is also a challenge.

Considering the current state of Nigeria’s healthcare system, what are the two or three most critical areas, besides congenital defects, that the government should prioritise for immediate improvement?

They have to look at the country holistically in any medical setting from a governmental standpoint. Primary healthcare is the gatekeeper. This is where pretty much everything will come through. So you have to strengthen that. But at the same time, organisations like ours have a role to play. We know that because we provide specialised healthcare. When you give that type of care, it has no choice but to uplift the entire healthcare system. So if you’ve given specialised care consistently, the whole healthcare system will automatically improve. We also know that infectious disease versus non-infectious disease, which is what we do, is also a big deal. We know that a lot of funding goes into infectious diseases. But for non-infectious diseases like congenital heart disease, those areas get less funding. If that area gets an uplift, then the whole healthcare community will improve as well.

Egbo:

Just to add to what Segun said, that is why we are doing this. I believe that people need to understand more about this whole idea of congenital heart defects. Awareness is low. So beyond helping children every year, we want to get awareness out there because I believe that when people understand, there will be action and urgency around it.

Which hospital are you working with in Abuja, Ajayi?

We are working with Cardio Care. They have a world-class catheterization lab. They have a world-class surgical suite. They have specialty nurses alongside our nurses. So over the last 10 years that we have been here, we have partnered with the local healthcare professionals within Nigeria. And talking about Japa, for every five nurses that we train, one of them goes out. But we still train and work together. We have specialised staff who come from the UK and the US, and we all work together as one team. We also partner with the hospitals that have those services.

Do you worry about the sustainability of these initiatives?

Ajayi:

So for us as an organisation, we have, like, six pillars of sustainability for the programme. I’m not going to go through all of them, but one of them is actually creating the first paediatric open heart hospital in Africa that is free to all. And it is very similar to the St. Andrew’s model in the US. St. Andrew’s model is that no matter where you are, no matter what child has cancer, they can go to that hospital. And for this hospital, no matter where you are in Africa, you can walk into it, and you will be able to get open heart surgery and other cardiac services 100 percent free if you are a child. And so when you create a whole system around it with structured staffing, it can go a hundred times as far as sustainability. So it is not just doing the surgeries; it is also doing the training. It is actually creating a system behind it.

Egbo:

It is an uphill battle, but we are working towards it. Hopefully, the ObiJackson Children and Women Hospital will become one of those hospitals in Africa that can take care of these needs. So this partnership that you see here is long-term. It is not just these 50 kids. That is why we are trying to create awareness around it as well, because it is costly. Even at 3.2 million per child, it is still expensive. So we are trying to create awareness so that more people can get involved and create opportunities for people to fund it.