Flying Doctors Nigeria Began As Female Pilot's Dream

Dr. Ola Orekunrin's dream of creating an air ambulance service in Nigeria was dismissed by many experts as impossible. But the young doctor and helicopter pilot refused to give up. Dr. Orekunrin tells host Michel Martin what it took to set up Flying Doctors Nigeria. This segment originally aired Dec. 5, 2013 on Tell Me More.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to a story about how one young woman is using technology to provide health care in a part of the world that sorely needs it - West Africa. My next guest, Dr. Ola Orekunrin, is committed to fighting against what she calls a silent epidemic. She's talking about trauma. But she's not just talking about it, she's actually piloted a solution - and I mean that literally. As a medical doctor and a helicopter pilot, she is the founder and managing director of West Africa's first air ambulance service, Flying Doctors Nigeria. Dr. Orekunrin was raised in the U.K. and went to medical school there. And last year, she told me how she got involved in operating this service in Nigeria.

OLA OREKUNRIN: I started thinking about health care in Africa really early. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I knew it needed to be something that I was passionate about. And I was on social media - early social media. Can you remember all the message boards where you could sit and rant about issues that you found really annoying? So that's what I was doing for a couple of years. And I guess there came to a point where that wasn't enough for me. And I really, really wanted to take action. And I think the thing that really pushed me off the sort of metaphorical cliff was when my own sister, actually, was on holiday in Nigeria, and she became critically ill and died before an air ambulance could reach her. And then I realized that this is what I needed to do. I was - I wanted to...

MARTIN: Now she was not a victim of a car accident.

OREKUNRIN: No, she was ill.

MARTIN: But it was in fact that she had a chronic condition. But she had, what, an acute attack...

OREKUNRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of this urgent condition...

OREKUNRIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And she couldn't get help in time.

OREKUNRIN: Yes.

MARTIN: I'm sorry about that, by the way.

OREKUNRIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I know it has to be painful even now...

OREKUNRIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...To think about. But...

OREKUNRIN: I was in medical school then when it happened. And that was when I thought, OK, this is what I really, really want to do. I'm going to go to Nigeria and whatever it takes, I'm going to set up an air ambulance that will save people like my sister.

MARTIN: I do want to mention - forgive me for mentioning - you are still a very young woman. You were in medical school at 22. You are only 27 years old now. I can imagine - stereotyping now - apologies - that you walk into a room, say, I'm a medical doctor and a helicopter pilot and I'm going to start this air ambulance service. I can imagine that there is some people who thought, sure, you are.

OREKUNRIN: Everybody thought I was joking, even - I spoke to some of the most senior people in aviation in Nigeria, and they all told me it wasn't possible. And that really leads me to a wider point about entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is, I think, more about the factors that are inside you than outside. And I think that a lot of the stories about entrepreneurship in America, in Africa and hopefully, the future stories that I really hope will come out of Africa will be about personal resilience and actually self-believe because that's what took me through those times when some of the most senior people in aviation and medicine are telling me that it's really not going to work. And people had invested, you know, close to millions of dollars in trying to start air ambulances in Nigeria, and it hadn't worked out for them. So they all told me to go back home. But I really believed deep inside me that I could find a model, I could find a market and I could find the right sets of staff and other factors that would make it work. And it was that self-belief that got me through that really tough period.

MARTIN: Why did they say it wouldn't work?

OREKUNRIN: There's a lot of regulation in Nigeria. There's a lot of bureaucracy in Nigeria. Our phone lines barely work, so it's quite difficult to get through to certain numbers. There's a lot of infrastructural issues, and obviously there's quite a lot of funding required as well. And you have to generate a certain amount of revenue to keep the service running.

MARTIN: So how do you think you were able to do it? 'Cause you did do it. It is in fact up and running now. And it's not just you. You actually manage a whole group of physicians like yourself - of medical professionals yourself, right?

OREKUNRIN: I think that one key was I was a doctor, and I'd seen air ambulance services work in the past. I'd thought about it. I'd visited several and listened to their stories quite carefully. And I was willing to put everything that I had into it. And I think that maybe some of the people that had come in the past, number one, weren't doctors. They didn't have perhaps the necessary expertise, and they were in it for the money. And it's very, very, very hard to start a business when you're solely in it for the money. I mean, you can be 50 percent in it for the money, but there has to be a part of you that is really genuinely passionate about a cause that is beyond money. And I think that that's one of most important points about entrepreneurship.

MARTIN: Are there stories that stand out for you of the people that you've been able to serve through your air ambulance service that you might be willing to share with us?

OREKUNRIN: Definitely. Definitely, there are. I think one of the most notable for me is a young gentleman who his bank was robbed. And - he didn't own the bank, but the bank he worked in was robbed - and he had a horrific facial injury. He lost his tongue, his lips, most of his face from gunshot wounds. And we were called in the early hours of the morning to airlift this gentleman to a hospital. And he was writing 'cause his sort of apparatus for speaking were all destroyed, and he was saying, look, don't let my fiancee see me like this because he thought that she wouldn't want to marry him anymore. So we were able to fly him to a suitable hospital. He was able to have facial reconstruction, and he got married a few months ago. And I think that that's one of the, you know, most remarkable stories for me because if he had stayed where the incident happened, then he would have had this horrific injury and probably have died. And seeing his wedding pictures was just so emotional for me 'cause I could remember exactly how he looked when the injury happened and how we'd managed to change that story. And I think that's one of the most emotional things for me.

MARTIN: So what's next for you having done this? What's next - moon launch? You know, Mars? Space station? What are we trying - what are we doing next?

OREKUNRIN: I'm really passionate about emergency care. I think that most people, even people that have chronic diseases, die of an emergency situation. And if we can get people to hospitals faster across Africa, then we can make sure that we're really delivering on our promise to get the right patients to the right medical facilities within the right time frame.

MARTIN: Dr. Ola Orekunrin is a doctor, helicopter pilot. She is the founder and managing director of Flying Doctors Nigeria. And she flew into Washington, D.C., and we were able to speak with her there. Dr. Orekunrin, please keep us posted.

OREKUNRIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks so much for joining us.

OREKUNRIN: Thank you so much.

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