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A tale of two titans of Nigerian health (ii): Michael Akintayo Bankole (1932-2018)

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On the 27th of February 2019, an extraordinary event took place in the Medical Research Centre (MRC) auditorium of the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH). It was titled ‘A Choral Morning of Tributes’.

Gathered in the spacious hall were an array of Chief Medical Directors – past and present, of the hospital and other hospitals, as well as management staff and other members of the hospital community. Some of the Bankole children and family were also there.

Michael Akintayo Bankole, Professor of Paediatric Surgery, died in November 2018, at the age of 85 years. Looking round the packed hall, you sensed an atmosphere that was both solemn and celebratory. A choral band dressed formally in black and white sat on the stage.

In 2003, Professor Bankole, aged 71, after ‘retiring’ from a distinguished career teaching and practising Paediatric Surgery, decided to join the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital as a Consultant.

LASUTH then was a two-year-old Teaching Hospital, trying to punch above its weight.

The Director of Clinical Services and Training had been Bankole’s student in the University of Ife and could attest to his exceptional brilliance and surgical prowess. But taking on a 71-year-old man was flying in the face of civil service regulations. It would take a passionate letter from the hospital management, all the way to the Governor of the day – Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, before the deal could be sealed.

Everybody understood that the old man was there, first and foremost, to create and nurture a capability to treat surgically ill babies and older children who previously had had to be referred to distant places or left to die in agony.

But for Bankole himself, the scope of the mission was somewhat larger.He was embarking on the most impactful phase of his life. In perspective it would look as if all that had gone on before had been some kind of rehearsal for this.

Professor Bankole would go on to spend fifteen years in LASUTH, far more years than he had spent serving anywhere else in his life. He would save far more children’s lives than he had ever been challenged to do before. He would train more people in the Art and Science of Paediatric Surgery, a surgical specialty where the doctor had the nerve and knowledge to open up a one-day old baby to save his life. He would create a department that would, in short order, acquire a reputation as one of the very best in Nigeria.

There was more still. He would become a great source of energy for the LASUTH project itself, and a powerful influencer for the entire medical community, including generations of medical students of the Lagos State College of Medicine who would grow up in the penumbra of his greatness, become doctors and seek to take their skills all over the nation and all over the world.

The event was in full flow.

An opening prayer. A welcome address.

A citation of Bankole, read by Dr Williams, a lady who had blossomed into a paediatric surgeon of some renown under the old man’s mentorship. She struggled to keep her composure as she read.

Bankole was born in Ondo in 1932. He attended Government College Ibadan. He trained in a University College Hospital, Ibadan that was still affiliated to the University of London. He graduated with distinctions in Surgery and Medicine, winning several prizes.

He became the first paediatric surgeon in Nigeria, and the first Nigerian surgeon to obtain the Fellowship of the American College of Surgeons.

Back in UCH, he worked as a lecturer/consultant.He became a Professor of Paediatric Surgery at the age of 39.

He was part of the founding faculty of the University of Ife.

He was Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences from 1976 to 1979 and Chief Medical Director of the Teaching Hospital Complex from 1978 to 1979.

In 1985 he took on a fresh challenge as the Registrar of the newly formed National Postgraduate Medical College.

Following his stint as Registrar, he joined the bandwagon of ‘economic migrants’ to Saudi Arabia.

And then he returned to Lagos, already past the proverbial three-score-and-ten years, to achieve his ultimate goal – self-actualization.

It fell to you to give the first tribute. You were, afterall, his employer.

That he was a ‘large’ man was noticeable straight off, you told the audience.

Once his huge and versatile knowledge of Life and Medicine became obvious, you were no longer content just to leave him to nurture and grow his specialization, which he was doing anyway. You put him to work improving medical records, improving quality, auditing medical incidents. His knowledge was encyclopedic, and it would have been a crime to an ambitious and growing hospital community to spare him. Bankole never asked to be spared. He threw himself into the work.

His thick squat form with its receding hair-line became a regular feature of the hospital corridors and wards. He walked fast, as if he was always in a hurry to get somewhere – to see the next one-month old baby with intestinal obstruction, to teach the next set of medical students who always hovered around him. To correct the next set of badly written patient’s notes and gently chide the culprit house officer.

Songs and tributes flowed apace.

Chris Bode, Chief Medical Director of Lagos University Teaching Hospital, and himself a Paediatric Surgeon, spoke of how Bankole had been Dean when he was a medical student in Ife. His door was open to everyone.

We were members of his household, and even his parrot knew our names…’

Other speakers told human angle stories about the man.

Professor Fabamwo, Bankole’s erstwhile student, now the CMD of LASUTH, spoke of the jubilation of medical students at Ife when it was announced that Bankole had won election to be Dean, at a time when their medical studies were going through a rough patch.

At the close of proceedings, one of the Bankole children rose to acknowledge the large number of people who obviously regarded themselves as kith and kin of Michael Akintayo Bankole.

He raised a laugh by using one of his father’s familiar expressions – ‘Oh, dear!’ touching his hand to his forehead in the familiar gesture.

A man of great knowledge. First Paediatric Surgeon. First Registrar of the Postgraduate Medical College. A builder of people. A good man.

One of his protégés would say something later that would resonate.

‘…He lived a full life and died empty…’

It was a description that sounded startlingly spartan to depict a man’s life. But it was actually the ultimate expression of the Christian spirit that Professor Bankole espoused and energetically pursued in his later years, with a great sense of fulfillment.

May his soul rest in peace.

 

Femi Olugbil

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