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I would have ended up as bicycle repairer — UCH chief medical director

Professor Jesse Otegbayo is the Chief Medical Director (CMD) of the University Teaching Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State. He turned 60 recently. In this interview,…

Professor Jesse Otegbayo is the Chief Medical Director (CMD) of the University Teaching Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State. He turned 60 recently. In this interview, he spoke about his humble beginning and suggests ways to improve health care services in Nigeria.

You are from a very humble background but grew up to become the current chief medical doctor of the University Teaching Hospital (UCH), Ibadan. What is the story of your journey to this position?

I was born in Ghana. I had my primary school at St. Peters Primary School, Ghana, before I returned to Nigeria with my parents in 1969.

In Nigeria, my father became a pastor, while my mother became a deaconess. The tradition of the church at that time was that the pastor’s wife must not work. She was expected to live in a mission house. My father died when I was in form two in secondary school. You could imagine what that meant for fatherless children whose mum was a full housewife. We were eight children. I am number four among my siblings. By providence,  I changed my school from Ila-Orangun in Osun State to another school in my home town, Ilesha, in the same state. Chief Bayo Otegbayo, one of my uncles who was very rich, had his house next to the school. 

So, at the end of the term in my form three, my school was giving prizes for academic excellence. Loudspeakers were used to announce winners. Fortunately for me, my uncle was at home on that day and listening to the programme. He heard my name repeatedly when I was being called to collect the avalanche of awards that I won.  I collected nine prizes in all. I emerged as the best in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and even in some other subjects. So, he was impressed. Later, he sent for me and asked me to sit on his lap.  Then, he told me that I was an all-rounder. So, he encouraged me to study Medicine. Before then, I had never thought of studying Medicine.  I didn’t even think of what to do with my life after my secondary education. Determined to ensure that I fulfilled the dream, he told me he would change my school to Command Secondary School, Kaduna and he did.  I finished my secondary education there in 1983 and gained admission to the University of Ibadan the same year. Six years after, I became a medical doctor.

When I was a student, I used to see some doctors that were addressed as consultants.  I developed a passion for it and said I would like to be like them because of the authority they wielded. I enquired about how to be a consultant and was told that I needed to go for residency. I had that in mind and during my NYSC.  I started studying for the first phase of the examination to join the residency. During my NYSC service year, I passed the examination and became a resident doctor in 1992. Five years after, I also became a specialist. Again, I saw some people being addressed as professors during my residency and I had a vision that I, too, could be one of them. I also made enquiries and was told I had to be an academic staff and God helped me. Today, the rest is history. 

At 60, do you have any regret?

No regret. I must thank God for my life.  I am living in good health and that is enough to appreciate God. I never knew I was going to live up to this age because I have a history of untimely death in my family. My father died at the age of 46. His father died earlier. We are not sure but we heard he died as a very young man. My father was the only child because his mother died during his childbirth. That was why they named him ‘Akanbi’ meaning “only child we gave birth to.” It is usually registered in my mind that I might not live long. When I turned 40, I celebrated a birthday party. So, no regret at all because God has really taken me where I never thought I could be in life. I am the first doctor and first professor in Otegbayo’s family.

What would you say is your trying moment in your life?

It was when my father died. At that time, being an only child of his own parents, we didn’t have any family around us (his children). So, when he died, it was like the whole world has crashed on me because he was the only one we knew. As I said, it was by providence that my uncle became my benefactor.  So, for a man to leave eight children behind with a widow was really a trying moment. 

Did you have any remarkable experience in your growing up days? 

God helped me to pass my exams in flying colours on the first attempt.

Another remarkable experience was when my father could not pay my school fees as the fourth child after I finished my primary education in 1973.  He had to give me to one of his church members to stay with him. Mr Ezekiel was his name. He used to deal in bicycle accessories and wristwatches. He was also a bicycle repairer. So, I learnt the trades under his tutelage within the three years that I lived with him. People thought I was an apprentice. I could fix any bicycle and wristwatch. But his own children were going to school. But I would stay in the shop to sell accessories and repair bicycles and wristwatches.  One day, I damaged a bicycle of one of his customers while trying to repair it and the man was very furious. He wanted to punish me but I ran to my mother. When the matter was settled by my parents, my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him that I wanted to go to school.  Then my father took me to Modern School, Ila-orangun. That was how I realized my education dream. Otherwise, I would have become a bicycle or wristwatch repairer. 

What were your expectations when you set out as a medical doctor;  have they been met? 

I wanted to be a physician or a cardiologist which  I never became. By the time I got into residency, for one reason or the other, I wasn’t able to do cardiology because there were too many people in it. The chief resident then said some of us who just passed examination should go to GIT, Gastroenterology. But none of us was ready to go for certain reasons best known to us. But after some time when the man refused to promote us, I decided to go. I believed it was God’s plan for me. Initially, what I had in mind was to be a doctor and look for a village where I could practice after graduation. But as I proceeded in my medical journey,  my dream changed based on what I saw around. My environment changed my disposition to what I wanted to become in life. There is no dream I have in life that has not been fulfilled. 

With all your dreams, were there people who served as role models for your aspiration?

When we were medical students, we used to see how consultants used to carry themselves. In fact, at a point, I had to imbibe some of their habits. Some of our professors used to smoke pipes. I tried it also but couldn’t sustain it. The like of Prof. Akinkugbe really impressed me with his teaching style, charisma, dictions and British accent. I wanted to be like him. When I became a resident, I had to read his CVs and publications.  Prof.  Osunubi and Prof Shokunbi, too, were my role models.

How would you juxtapose between the medical industry in Nigeria now and when you joined the sector?

There is was a decline in the quality of health services from the time I started practising as a doctor and up till now. With the advent of COVID-19, our inadequacy in the health sector was exposed and the government of the day took a bold step to make what they called special intervention in the health sector. Some amounts were released to almost all the tertiary health care institutions to upgrade our system to be able to cope with emergencies and critical care like ICU and laboratories. In fact, about N980million was spent on each of these hospitals. With that, we are now going in the right way to improve our health care system. If the trend is sustained, it will be better for us. If we can increase our budgetary allocation to 15percent that African Union agreed in 2001 which Nigeria is signatory to, our health care system will also improve. 

What are the challenges of running tertiary health facilities in the COVID-19 era?

One of them is the unavailability of equipment.  A doctor might want to do a diagnosis but might not have the required equipment to do the investigation. Another one is the workforce. Some workers need training and retraining but because of inadequate funding, we turn down the demand for it. 

What have been the challenges since you came on board as the CMD of the UCH?

Funding. This is because, all the equipment are not manufactured in Nigeria, not even in Africa. We have to buy them with hard currency. UCH was the only tertiary health care institution we had in those days. But currently, we have 56 tertiary health care and teaching hospitals. The focus of funding on UCH now spreads across the other tertiary health care facilities.

Also, our budgetary allocation for the health sector is not up to 15 per cent of our GDP we all agreed to. I think the highest we did was six per cent. That is why funding is key. But we had to think outside the box. For instance, in 2019, we appealed to the head of the Redeemed Christian Church of God and he donated some amounts for us to buy a dialysis machine.  Someone also hinted to me that if he came to commission it by himself, we could get more. When he came,  he promised us more. Within a week, we got another dialysis.

What should Nigerians expect when it comes to care of stomach and intestines in terms of research?

Digestive system is from the mouth to the anus, the intestines, the liver and the  pancreas.  So, hepatitis is one major killer that  leads  to liver cancer.  We want to increase education and research in that area. We have already started but until we finish, we may not know. We have just formed another association of which I’m a member.  It is called Africa Eluco Bacteria Initiative.  Prof.  Smith from Nigerian Institute for  Medical Research in Lagos is the president. We are going to do the baseline study of most diseases of the digestive system and disseminate the research. For years,  we’ve been trying to inform government about the need to have a centre for digestive diseases. We want to educate the people.  We want to know the diseases of the digestive system that are common in our environment,  do research in that area and how to alleviate  them.  Those are the things I would say Nigerians should expect from us. 

Patient spike,  facility deficit as well as brain drain have been perennial problems in Nigerian public hospitals.  How have you been able to manage the challenges?  

Managing that is not something that can be done at any particular centre like UCH. It has to be a national effort,  maybe championed by the Federal Ministry of Health. We are just foot soldiers for government to implement policies. We don’t formulate policies.  What you’re talking about is centred around policy making. There are some ideas I have as to how things could  be done. But it is not my brief.  It is in the realm of what policy makers have to do. 

Omicron is.  What is your advice to Nigerians on how they can stay safe?  

It is the same thing  we’ve been talking about either with the Delta variant or the traditional one that has been  ravaging the country. To stay safe, avoid large gathering, wash your hands,  use face mask, ensure physical distancing. All these conspiracy theories about vaccines are not true.  People should take the vaccine.  It has also been shown that taking the  booster dose after you had taken the two jabs of Astracena or whichever one you took,   the third they say also protects against omicron strain. I think anybody who has taken the jab should go and take the booster and anybody who has not taken should go and take it because it’s protective.  It has been shown to be protective. That’s my advice to Nigerians.