Global Health: Restoring Hope Through Health
By Olusimbo Ige*
A stained-glass window in Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta features the holy family, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus. PHOTO: KATHLEEN BARRY/ UMCOM
Jesus…poured himself out in servanthood for all humanity and emptied himself of divine privilege, assuming the trials and risks of human limitation. Jesus identified in compassion with all humanity and lived in radical faithfulness to the will of God.
(Adapted from Philippians 2:7)
—Theology of Mission: The Self-Emptying Life of Jesus the Christ in Service to the Least and the Last section
We tend to attribute our career choices to experiences we had while we were young—or to some admired personality in our lives. While these experiences undoubtedly influence us, I believe we are designed by God to be impacted by them. I also believe we have an inner compulsion that steers us toward our life’s path. My choice of a life in public health and medicine is a combination of all of these.
In first grade, I was given a pocket dictionary (that I have to this day) as an award for humanity. I had no clue what that meant, but since I now had my own dictionary, I could look it up. This was my first realization that I really enjoyed helping others. This is why I believe God designed me for a life in medicine and health.
Even before I could talk, I would share whatever gifts I received with those around me. I would give up my meals to classmates and even offer things I was not in a position to give. I am not sure if this is because I grew up in a home where everything had to be shared, or if I was just configured so. Perhaps it was a result of both factors. I grew up in Nigeria in a typical African family where meals were prepared for no less than 15 to 20 people. Some of the people who dined with us were strangers whose names I did not even know. I grew up knowing it was normal to give to others who were in need. This is a belief that is foundational for a career in medicine, a profession that often requires 80-hour work weeks, endless sleepless nights, and a willingness to drop whatever you are doing to respond to a call to care for the sick.
Dr. Olusimbo Ige holds a newborn at the John Dean Town Clinic in Liberia. PHOTO: JOHN DEAN TOWN CLINIC
Another significant influence in my life occurred when I was about eight years old. A little girl had moved with her family into the maid’s quarters a few houses away and we became fast friends. A few months later, she fell ill. Later I learned that her parents had been refused care at the hospital because they had no money for a deposit. They
had brought their little girl back home and tried to nurse her back to health with traditional medicine. She died within three days. She was the third of their five children to die.
I spent many days trying to fathom why this child could not be helped. I imagined having a sick child on my lap, not knowing what to do, with no means to seek help or even a place to go for help. That was when I decided I would become a doctor so that I could help as many sick people as possible regain their health. I became fascinated with medicine, and I was further inspired by many famous doctors that I read about.
I often recall my first real encounter with a doctor. I must have been eight or nine when I had to spend several days in the hospital because of a raging fever and delirium. My only recollection of the time I spent in the hospital was that my mother, seated by my bedside, looked frightened and worried. Her fear was only abated by constant reassurance from the doctors that I would recover. I remember the doctors as people who brought hope, which was exactly what I wanted to do. Seeing the fear of death replaced by the hope of life—seeing the hopelessness in the face of a sick patient turn to hope with the offer of help—these are the joys of being a health practitioner.
Parents Jean Loui Mukamba (right) and Belinda Rizika watch over their
11-month-old son Michel Basubi at the United Methodist Nyamianda
Hospital in Uvira, Democratic Republic of Congo. The child is receiving
quinine to treat his malaria. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS
I remember my first patient when I was still a medical student. He had chest pain, and I remember the excitement of figuring out whether or not the pain was life-threatening. As it turned out, it was not; his pain was from acid reflux. I cannot forget how happy he was when I reassured him he would be okay. The awe of discovering the human body; the honor of being trusted to give advice; the gratitude for helping someone through a difficult illness—these things never grow old for me.
It would be dishonest to say that every day is exciting, or to fail to mention that choosing medicine as a career also means having a limited social life. While others partied in college, medical students crashed study groups. I remember disappointed relatives whose weddings I could not attend, the Christmas holidays I missed, and the several imaginary interrupted vacations I took in my mind. The most challenging times for me as wife and mother are missing significant events with my kids. It is difficult to explain to a five-year-old why Mummy cannot be there to watch him sing in the school choir—because another five-year-old who is sick needs Mummy to help him get better.
The Road not Taken
There were other choices I made along the way that impact me today. At graduation, I was awarded the prize for internal medicine and I already had an offer for residency in Neurology. But when my husband proposed and I accepted, we moved to a new city, and that meant I lost the option for a residency. I chose to follow my heart—and was miserable for much of the first year of my marriage, but I was also forced to review my options. My detailed research into the available possibilities led me to public health. This turned out to be the best career decision I could have made. Working in public health, the world became my parish.
Nurse Lohondje Shanga prepares an immunization
during a maternal clinic at the United Methodist Mangobo Health Center
in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. The center was revitalized
using funds from the denomination’s Imagine No Malaria campaign. Photo by Mike DuBose/UMNS
Through the years, I have dabbled in various aspects of medicine and health care, and I have continued to be blessed by the opportunities to make a difference in someone’s life. The many different ways of doing this have become more conspicuous to me over time. During some of the more stressful days; crushed by impossible time constraints and ever more onerous bureaucratic demands, I can’t deny that sometimes I think my life would be so much easier if I had chosen another path. Yet, each year, a new wave of enthusiasm floods my heart as I recount the many people living in the margins whose lives were transformed because of one or another of our health programs around the world.
Improving People's Health
Today, I lead the Global Health work of Global Ministries, which provides the kind of platform I have always prayed for, to reach people in unimaginable and dire circumstances. Now I have a unique opportunity to provide leadership and guidance for health programs in more than 25 countries—reaching more than 2 million people each year and ensuring that help gets to those who most need it. Can you imagine what it feels like to be a part of these stories?
Even now, as the executive director of Global Health, a role that requires pushing papers, sitting in endless meetings, and crunching numbers, I realize that I am lucky and immensely privileged to be able to work directly to improve the health outcomes for many people all around the world. When I get to meet those who are impacted through our work in Global Health, the power of a global connection becomes palpable. I can’t always respond to every health challenge, but to have an opportunity to try cannot be underestimated. I tell everyone who asks that there is nothing else I’d rather do in my life than medicine. If I had it to do all over again, I’d end up right here in this office.
*Dr. Olusimbo Ige is a layperson and medical doctor serving as the executive director of Global Health. Originally from Nigeria, she has previous work experience with the World Health Organization and USAID. Her medical specialty is in public health.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Winter 2017 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.
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