21 Year Old Former Foster Child is Youngest Qualified Doctor In UK, Makes Forbes Magazine
Recently names to the Forbes Africa’s 30 Under 30 list, Ola Orekunrin is a West African doctor and founder of the regions first indigenous emergency service, Flying Doctors Nigeria. Becoming a doctor at just 21-years-old made her the youngest doctor in Britain ever. Fueled by her personal conviction and impassioned by a family tragedy, Orekunrin is one of Africa’s most successful pioneering entrepreneurs, and oddly enough, her name “Ola” means “wealth” in Yoruba, a native African language.
Orekunrin was born in London and grew up in a foster home with her sister in Lowestoft, a small seaside town in south-east England. She attended University of York for medical school. She reports immediately becoming interested in emergency trauma medicine.
After graduating as a qualified doctor at just 21-years-old, Ola was awarded the MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship after a meteoric rise in the field of medical studies. Studying at Jikei University Hospital, Ola conducted research in the field of regenerative medicine. She moved back to Europe upon completing her research.
It was during her time in medical school that a tragic event served as a catalyst for he major life and career decisions Ola made. Her 12-year-old sister, who had sickle cell anemia, fell extremely ill while visiting family in Nigeria. The closest hospital was unable to properly treat her, so Ola and her family tried to find an air ambulance service that could transport her sister quickly and safely to a healthcare facility capable of treating her. Despite searching all across West Africa, they were unable to find an air ambulance service closer than South Africa. This was a stark contrast to what she experienced growing up in England, where there were around 20 air ambulance services.
The South African air ambulance service was five hours away and had a 12-hour activation time. They needed just under two days to get to Nigeria, and by the time all of the logistics were worked out and they were ready to activate, Ola’s sister died.
Regarding her sister’s death, Ola states, “It was a devastating time for me and I started thinking about whether I should be in England talking about healthcare in Africa, or I should be in Africa dealing with healthcare and trying to do something about it.”
What makes the death of Ola’s sister so heartbreaking is that she did not die because her condition was unmanageable, she died because she could not access the type of care she needed. Ola turned a tragedy that broke her heart into passion and dedication. She began studying evacuation models and air ambulance services in other developing countries.
After working for ten years with Britain’s National Health Service, Ola quit her job, kissed her political aspirations of becoming president of the British Medical Association and minister for the conservative party goodbye, sold her car and her house, and bought a one way ticket to Lagos, and decided to deal with the issues facing the African health care system head on. Ola believes Africans can do for themselves without needing a handout from outside governments or agencies. She states, “I just think that we need to start thinking outside the box and be more confident in the concept of African innovation.”
With her medical and aviation training, Ola founded the first air operated Emergency medical services in Lagos, Nigeria and named it “Flying Doctors Nigeria.” She was turned down multiple times for funding but was eventually able to secure some to use as capital along with her savings.
In its first three years, the air ambulance service airlifted some 500 patients, providing injured and critically ill people in remote areas transport to hospitals using a fleet of more than 20 planes and helicopters. Ola’s goal of finding an effective way of facilitating people who are critically ill, getting them to the right doctor and facility within the right time frame for their particular illness has been reaches.
Ola’s decision to go ahead and start Flying Doctors was a direct result of her fascination with helicopters, trauma medicine, vehicle accident kinetics and pre-hospital medicine. She also reports that having the unique skill set she does also influenced her decision.