How my British HOD forced me to specialise in O & G —Prof Bomi Ogedengbe, first female Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Nigeria

Professor Bomi Ogedengbe is the first female Nigerian professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the second female president of West African College of Surgeon. In this interview by TAYO GESINDE, she speaks about the challenges she faced as a single female doctor, why the maternal mortality rate is still on the high side in Nigeria among others sundry issues.


What informed your choice of career?

In a way, it was just coincidental. When I was very young at about five or six years old, I used to say to my father that I want to be a doctor and I noticed that anytime I say it, he was very happy. I was very close to my father and he spoilt me terribly. I just said it unconsciously. Later on when I was in primary and secondary school, I found out that my life was channelled into the sciences and I was very bad in arts. So, God was moving in His own way. When I was going to start university, I decided I was going to read medicine and was fortunate to get admitted into Oxford University which was where I did my medicine successfully. For one reason or the other, I always had this pull to come to Nigeria. I went to England with my parents when I was nine months old but in spite of that, I always think of Nigeria as home.

As soon as I got qualified as a doctor, I came to Nigeria and did my house jobs. My mother wanted me to specialise but she didn’t say specifically in what. So, I wanted to specialise in the easier specialities like Ear, Nose and Throat; Dermatology and so on. But at that time, I was in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Lagos State University. My Head of Department then was Professor U. M Lester, an English woman. She went behind my back to block ENT and Dermatology from taking me and indirectly forced me to stay in O & G which I actually loved but it was hard work. I wanted an easy life but I really enjoyed it. That was how I stayed in O & G and a cousin, Professor Akin Adesola, suggested I go back to England to specialise properly. So, I went back to England, spent two years and passed Royal College Obstetrician and Gynaecology Examination. Again, the pull was there. As soon as I passed, I came straight down to Nigeria to come and practice and I have never regretted it


What were the challenges you faced at the beginning of your career?

Unlike UK, the work here was much harder, because everything was in order there. Here, it was a bit more difficult. More running around but more importantly, I think the main challenge was the cultural one because when I came back, I wasn’t married. It wasn’t a big deal to me at all but, I noticed that I was surrounded by both professionals and non professionals who kept saying, Dr Solanke (that was my name then), won’t you get married? By then I was a specialist and as far as they were concerned something big was missing. So, I told them I would marry when I find the person I want to marry and they will shock me by saying, at least if you don’t marry, se bi wa de bi omo  (just have a child).  I thought, wait a minute? What is the big deal about having a child? It was a bit of a nuisance for me. It was very difficult for me to just wait till I found the right person. Practising as a doctor then in Nigeria was much easier than it is now.

The challenges that they face now, things are more difficult. When I came back everything was much more organised. There was electricity; the hospital ran smoothly because health was well funded until now. I am sure it will be even more difficult for women to do O & G now than at that time. Apart from that, at that time, there was an advantage to being a woman because internationally, gender sensitivity had come to play and I was given many chances, especially to come and do courses, run NGOs and so on. Most of my seniors went into private practice; I was the one that stayed in the university, so, I was chosen to work with many of the international donor agencies.


What were the most defining moments of your life and career?

There were many. First was when I had my first child because I had bad obstetrics history. I lost a few pregnancies. The second one was when I got my full chair in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Finally when I became the second female president of West African College of Surgeon. The first one was twenty years before me and she was a Ghanaian. I am the second one.


You are a role model to many young women, how do you feel about this?

I grew up in England, so, I don’t think it is very difficult to do the right thing for me. I am always amazed at the pedestal that people put me.  In England where I grew up, the English men are very humble; they don’t make any big deal about anything. It sometimes gets embarrassing when I was treated with so much respect. I try to advise people when I can, I try to support when I can especially women. I am a little bit of gender biased. I try to encourage them and let them know I understand their plight. I enjoy it when I see the outcomes. We just finished exams now and one of my girls got through and I was more thrilled for her than for the men.


How were you able to combine the home front with your career?

That I think is a major challenge for most women. And I think that is why some younger ones were not able to continue with O & G because of the nature of the profession. For instance, babies come at all times of the day. You are dealing with two lives and a woman can die just like that in pregnancy. There are therefore, a lot of emergencies and it is totally controlled. I think that is why many did not do it, those who tried, fell by the wayside while those who completed it went into private practise where there would be more in control of their lives. Personally, God came to work in my life again. The delay in getting married and having children served to make it a bit easier for me. I was a consultant when I was having children and looking after my home. It is very difficult when you are newly married and you are on call and you are trying to get pregnant or have babies. I was very lucky, the way things worked out. I was a senior staff, so, I was able to look after my home and family. And one did not disturb the other.


What advice do you have for younger women who are trying to juggle their career with the home front?

First of all, they have to have a very understanding husband. It is more difficult here because of our culture. A woman is expected to do everything and for peace in the home, I think it is important to let your spouse understand that you realise your role and you are grateful that your husband understands. Play that out. Don’t try and be equal with your husband. Don’t say, we are both equal, we both make money. The time is not ripe for that in Nigeria and I think it will never come. I still go to the market and I cook for my husband. I have a house help but I still cook for my husband even at this age and my husband is very understanding because he is able to see that I am trying. Once they get this mentality and they let him know that they realise that it is a sacrifice that he is making in allowing her to pursue her career, I think it can work.


What do you consider to be the most difficult aspect of your career?

I am more of a clinician than an academician and I love treating my patients more than writing papers or doing research. I like helping my patients; God can only work through one. The most difficult part of it is when you realise you can’t help a patient whether because she has cancer or lost her pregnancy, you can’t hold it in.


How do you feel when you lose a patient that is trying to give birth?

I am trying to remember, I thank God that it hasn’t happened many times. When I was much younger in the profession, I was not a consultant so the patient was not really mine but because I was the house officer and registrar and I related more with the patient, when she died, I was shattered. That is why I thank God it hasn’t happened often in my career.


What can be done to reduce the rate of maternal mortality in Nigeria?

The maternal mortality rate is high but generally, health in Nigeria is not a priority. Until it becomes a priority, the maternal mortality will continue to be high. People are poor so basically government has to take seriously the funding of health institutions. They must try and fund it so that antenatal care must be almost free. They must also ensure that Primary Health Centres are well equipped. We also need to educate the women to get rid of all the bad cultural practices. Traditional birth attendants too should be trained so that they can recognise what they can’t handle, so that when they see the dangers they can refer the patient to specialist hospitals. I think that is the way to go.

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