Born in Chicago, Dr. Ojiaku Ikezuagu (otherwise know as Dr. OJ) was around five-years-old when his parents moved back to Nigeria to follow a job opportunity presented to his father. As a preteen, Ikezuagu grew up in the state of Imo in southeastern Nigeria, where he witnessed family members dying of illnesses that could have been prevented. He and a few of the local boys cut grass around the hospital in their village, and what he saw there created a yearning to pursue medicine. As well, his parents noticed that their son possessed a talent for science, and sought early to translate this skill into a profession. But they did not need to do much convincing, because Ikezuagu had decided by age six that he wanted to become a doctor. He wanted to be part of the solution.
“I wanted to provide services to people who desperately need them.”
Ikezuagu began his first medical residence in 2004. He joined the Wayne County Hospital staff a little over a year ago, and is already well known for his generosity and skill. But the people of his home country call him back. On mission trips to Nigeria, Ikezuagu and a devoted team of doctors provide medical care and dispense much-needed pharmaceuticals in local villages. He has spent a week or two straight just treating people in the field, in the neighboring state of Anambra. Some of the problems he finds include diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, post heart-attack symptoms and malaria. Before his group touches down, people on the ground perform triage and report back to Ikezuagu, so that he knows what he will be dealing with immediately. There are often 5,000-10,000 people waiting for medical care when he does arrive. Much of the care he provides relates to medication.
“The need is so huge we don’t even have the capability of meeting it,” Ikezuagu says. “When I went back a year ago, a lot of my relatives needed medications. I promised them when I came back this time I’d bring meds. My goal is to provide a year’s supply. These meds are definitely life-sustaining for them.”
In Nigeria, the pharmaceutical companies are often corrupt. The composition of the medications they manufacture are not what is advertised or promised. The companies sell placebos that provide false hope, and take the villagers’ money in exchange.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Pharmaceuticals are critical for the health and well-being of populations. Their access and consumption can be likened to a double-edged sword: on one hand, they alleviate the manifestation of disease but on the other hand, if they are inappropriately used, or worse, counterfeit or substandard, they may be ineffective and even toxic to the individuals who take them.”
Regulatory weaknesses and an absence in conflict of interest guidelines hinder Nigeria from appropriately overseeing pharmaceutical production.
“What we have [in the Unites States],” Ikezuagu says, “people in Nigeria would die for. Though the insurance system is not perfect, I’m grateful to live in a country where you don’t have to choose between meds and food.”
Ikezuagu attempts to build relationships with American pharmaceutical companies to secure medications with one year or less of shelf life. The companies, which would otherwise discard these pills, donate them for mission trips. They can be the difference between life and death.
The Wayne County Hospital supplies equipment such as surgical materials, IV tubes as well as medications. Ikezuagu then gives the donations to Nigerian hospitals.
In one village, they made a makeshift cubicle for him to treat patients. As he was helping one villager, Ikezuagu saw a woman in her 80s collapse. She had symptoms of stroke, voice slurring and blood pressure unbelievably high. He told the woman’s son to get her immediately to a hospital. The son gave Ikezuagu an odd look, and said, “We don’t have any money.” Despite Ikezuagu’s urging, there was nothing either of them could do. The son could only bring his mother home and wait for the inevitable.
“It was so heartbreaking to hear that,” Ikezuagu says. “It was eye-opening for me. There’s no med management—people can’t afford it. Doctors who go back are the only hope some people have. It’s such a privilege to serve in this capacity. I treat a lot of people. It gets overwhelming.”
On that trip, Ikezuagu saw between 100 and 200 patients every day. At lunchtime, the doctors received food and water. He saw a woman with high blood pressure during dinner, and Ikezuagu gave her his bottle of water. An older woman—not rich by any means—saw what the doctor did, and she bought him a bottle and gave it to him to drink. Simple acts of unselfishness like this, from those who have the least, encourage Ikezuagu to keep giving.
On another mission trip, he saw a 12-year-old girl that had probably snuck into the clinic. She tugged on his scrubs. She tried to tell Ikezuagu that she had asthma, but he could not understand what she was saying. The meds she took for asthma were outdated—what doctors used in the 60s and 70s to treat the disorder. He was able to update her medication and help her problem.
Ikezuagu can tell many stories like this. The group from Nigeria that organizes the trips hopes for medical care for their families, and houses him in a hotel. A group of five or six people pulled him aside needing medical attention, and he told them to come to his hotel. They said they could not afford it. Ikezuagu said to come anyway, it was worth it if he could give them a year’s worth of medication.
He hopes to return to Nigeria this December.
“One of the things I appreciate about mission trips,” Ikezuagu says, “is that a lot of the people I treat watched me grow up. It’s the realization of a dream. I’m grateful to God for making this happen.
“There’s something about giving back in this capacity that’s so rewarding—to not do something for money. Altruism. It’s hard work, but I come out of it incredibly rejuvenated.”