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Medicine and mentors

If a country like Nigeria remains gruffly marooned among the economic and political laggards of the world, and continues to suffer an illness of castrated…

If a country like Nigeria remains gruffly marooned among the economic and political laggards of the world, and continues to suffer an illness of castrated potentials and  possibilities, it will not be because it does not boast a critical mass of human capital that has a humongous capacity to catalyse change in society and mobilise its developmental armaments for its progress and wellness; it will be because we have not collectively as a nation utilise the varied opportunities presented by the advantages of the illustrious men and women who since the country’s political independence have selflessly and passionately  contributed to the Nigerian project of  sustainable development and economic prosperity. Defined within the prism of meritorious service as well as from the vistas of professional excellence and hallmarks of greatness, these inspiring patriots—Bolanle Awe, Dike, Sawaba, Achebe, Elias, Magbogunje and the like—have confirmed the exactness of the now famous platitude: ‘the heights that great men reached and kept was not by sudden flight for they, while their companions were sleeping, kept toiling up at night!’ our own tragedy would then be that while these heroes where toiling for Nigeria, they were not recognized for what they were doing.
This is equally true of the distinguished medical quartet of Thomas Orishejolomi, Umaru Shehu and Adeoye Lambo; for while many in their generation slept and catnapped amidst the promises of independence, these eminent Nigerians sought occasions to contribute in leaps and bounds to our nation’s processes of development and growth. And yes, they did not attain their deservedly gained heights in the medical profession by ‘sudden flight.’ Rather, these national physicians, by sheer hard work and personal commitment, translated the Hippocratic Oath into a diagnosis of the Fatherland. The charge of that Oath is an opportunity to redeem the health of the nation’s health care system through rigorous sense of accountability and dedication.    
Celebrating outstanding academics and world acclaimed medical researchers like Professor Emeritus Umaru Shehu is a herculean task that is best transcended by allowing their significant inputs in medical journals, public and private health institutions and, if you like, in the hearts of grateful Nigerians nationwide to speak for themselves. What interests one about Umaru’s, accomplishments is that his intellectual offerings have been brought on the altar of Nigeria’s development and are recognised worldwide as authoritative and well-cited contributions. It can therefore be said that together with great medical stalwarts like Oladipo Akinkugbe, Lambo and Orishejolomi, Umaru Shehu laid the foundation for the excellence to which Nigerian medicine is known both in the country and in its diaspora. His choice of community medicine—a branch of medicine concerned with the health of all members of a community or region—gives Professor Umaru’s career a toga of national responsibility that straddles mainstream healthcare, health education and health administration. It makes it possible for him to translate serious medical research into serious administrative policies that impact on the health of the citizens while also making more medical advances possible. William Welch was therefore speaking to Umaru Shehu’s profound sense of service when he said, ‘Medical education is not completed at the medical school: it is only begun.’
We find a kindred spirit for Umaru Shehu in Horatio Oritsejolomi Thomas who also combined the rigour of medicine with the complexity of administration. Unlike Prof. Shehu, that complexity could often lead to dire consequences: Prof. Thomas tasted the harshness of the military government which dismissed him as the VC of the University of Ibadan in 1975. Yet, the tragic hero could not be silenced. He relentlessly pursued his objective of making medical education a functional part of Nigeria’s development framework. As Vice Chancellor, he had the rare opportunity to perfect the pedagogical mechanics of medical education. Paracelsus, the ancient German alchemist sums Prof. Thomas’ objective: ‘Medicine is not only a science; it is also an art. It does not consist of compounding pills and plasters; it deals with the very processes of life, which must be understood before they may be guided.’   While professors Umaru Shehu and Oritsejolomi Thomas were labouring within the deep institutional framework of medical education in Nigeria, Prof. Adeoye Lambo had his attention elsewhere.
Thomas Adeoye Lambo, like Oritsejolomi Thomas, also had a memorable taste of military arbitrariness when he was dismissed for a 1972 student riot. Yet, his pioneering work in ethno-psychiatry was enough to submerge the infamy of dismissal. Ethno-psychiatry became, for Prof. Lambo, the opportunity to rethink Nigeria social health dynamics from the perspective of her indigenous medical pharmacotherapy. The Aro Neuropsychiatric Hospital became an institutional juncture for the innovative deployment of modern medical techniques and traditional religious and medical practices within the soothing and tolerant context of social interaction. It is also a metaphor for the urgent need to rethink and reconstitute the development dynamics of Nigeria. Psychiatry, in the hand of Adeoye Lambo, becomes a significant development index.
The medical threesome of Lambo, Shehu and Thomas could be credited with editing the medical status of the nation from their various perspectives. These laudable administrative efforts, innovative medical theses and strategic clinical interventions have been part of the redemptive necessities of the Nigerian state. They, and those they have sired in the medical profession, hold a unique pride of place as fellow foot-soldiers in the efforts to rehabilitate the national project. It may be difficult to imagine the role of a physician in a country’s development dynamics. Yet, is it possible to imagine a nation without its healthcare system and its army of doctors, nurses, paramedics and other essential workers? Any sick Nigerian is a reflection of the state of our socio-political and economic health. In the case of the trio of Lambo, Thomas and Shehu, the Hippocratic Oath has an added responsibility which derives from the context of the practice of medicine in a developing country: Your medicine must traverse the intricate complexities of medical administration in Nigeria to reach its mark. In other words, you are not just in charge of individuals, you are diagnosing a nation! Martin Fisher, the German-born American physician, captures the significance of the medical profession: ‘Medicine is the one place where all the show is stripped of the human drama.
You, as doctors, will be in a position to see the human race stark naked—not only physically, but mentally and morally as well.’

Dr Olaopa, a permanent secretary, wrote from Abuja