‘Human body is like machine, make allowance for healthcare’
Dr. Abayomi Ajayi is a consultant Obstetrician & Gynaecologist and the Managing Director, Nordica Fertility Centre, Lagos, a clinic that specialises in In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) and fertility treatment. Abayomi, who hails from Abeokuta in Ogun State, is founder, ISCARE Nigeria Limited, an investment company focused on the healthcare sector in Nigeria and West Africa. He is also co-founder of the Africa Endometriosis Awareness and Support Foundation. In this interview with CHIJIOKE IREMEKA, he spoke on a number of issues bordering on reproductive medicine and his lifestyle, among others.
You have been a key player in the reproductive medicine practice in Nigeria. What do you see as the major challenge(s) facing this field of medicine in the past five years and way out?
We can look at it from two points of view. One is from the patient’s point of view because patient education is one major issue that we are still grappling with. People consider healthcare to be the doctor’s business, but it’s not. What I tell patients is that if there is a mistake, it is 100 per cent your burden. The doctor can only say I’m sorry. So, it’s important for patients also to understand and to have basic knowledge about how their body works and other basic things we need to know.
The second part is access. People complain that healthcare costs money. But somebody has to pay, either the government or the people. And we know that in Nigeria now, it might not be possible for the government to pay for obvious reasons. So, these are the two main problems that I see.
One is probably easier than the other because we can try to come together to address it, although we need the cooperation of the public. They have to read, listen to doctors and ask questions. There are even some people who go for consultation yet they don’t know the name of the doctor that spoke to them, but they know the name of their bank manager. They know the name of even the teller in the bank.
So, they just lack interest in healthcare issues. The easiest way to make people sleep in a congregation is if you start talking about healthcare. Yet you say health is his wealth. So, it’s important for us to take interest in our health. We need to ask questions like: What can we do? What can we not do? What kind of doctor do I need to see if I have this kind of problem? These are basic things that we should know.
Then we should also decide. It’s either we are paying for healthcare, in which case you need to have a budget for it or we are involved with Health Maintenance Organisation (HMO). We should just make allowance for healthcare because we are also like machines.
Imagine that your body has been working for 40 years as a machine and there is no provision for it that one day something will go wrong. This is what we do. We don’t make any provision for health care. So, I think it’s important that we plan for healthcare.
What would be your advice to couples that may be experiencing delayed pregnancy or seeking IVF?
Well, the first thing is that they should make hay while the sun is shining. We keep saying that if you are below 35 and you have tried for one year, you must see a doctor. But how many people listen to us? If you are above 35, after six months, you must see a doctor. So, the first thing is that time is of essence in fertility.
One of the things that infertility would teach you is patience on the part of the patient. You have to wait. But waiting is only valid when you are doing something, not just waiting and hoping. So, you must be doing something right. That’s why it’s important for you to quickly see a doctor who can point out what you need to do rather than just sitting down and doing white fast, red fast.
Infertility is a medical condition. As long as people don’t take appendicitis to their homes and start praying about it, they should also not take infertility home to start praying about it. I’m not saying that prayers don’t work. Prayers do work but we need to also do the right thing about it because it’s a medical condition. Even the Bible says secret things belong to the Lord, but the things that are revealed belong to the sons of man. So, the treatment of infertility is revealed, it belongs to us.
Some women who do not know their fertility status blame it on lack of Mr. Right. What does the future hold in stock for these ones?
They should do it on time. Some people say they don’t have a husband. Yeah, but you can store your eggs if Mr. Right is not available. You should still know about health. That is why knowledge is profitable for all.
Wisdom is the principal thing, so in all your getting, get understanding. That is why we should take advantage of every opportunity talking about reproduction and healthcare so that when we are doing the right or wrong thing, we would know.
Do you think there’s a knowledge gap between the masses and the professionals in reproductive medicine?
Well, I think the most important thing is the time we are in. I see a lot of people even in there 50s coming to me and saying that they want to store their eggs. And some of these people are graduates. When graduates can talk like this, it shows me that our knowledge of reproductive medicine is very low and if you are not careful, somebody might start taking you for a ride.
If you tell that kind of person that it’s probably too late to start storing her eggs, she can get upset because she is not coming from a point of knowledge but from a point of emotions. That is the difference between a woman in Nigeria and a woman in the United Kingdom (UK) or U.S.
The woman abroad knows basic things about her health, so what you are telling her is not totally new. We tend to believe more about what pastors said rather than the facts surrounding whatever they want to do. So, the more people can avail themselves of the facts, the better guided they will be; because what they do is like buying a car and wanting it to fly.
That is akin to what people say. They tell you not to worry, that it can be done. But everybody knows that you cannot buy a car and expect it to fly. But because you do not know, somebody is promising that the car will fly and you are putting your money into it. So, a sound bite on this is that reproductive knowledge is profitable to all; everyone should strive to get it.
For example, you see some people smoking all kinds of things and they come to the IVF clinic thinking that because we do IVF, it will take away everything that they have done to their body. It’s not likely but they don’t have the knowledge that when you smoke, it reduces your sperm and egg count. Those are things that everybody should know. So, I’m not a magician, I only work with what I’m given.
Going into your childhood, were you a silver spoon child or a regular child on the street struggling to survive?
I would say I was a crossbreed of the two. I wasn’t a silver spoon, definitely, but I also was not a wooden spoon. Unfortunately for me then, and fortunately for me now, my parents died when I was very young. It is fortunate for me now because it taught me independence at a very young age. But back then it was a struggle for me, especially emotionally.
But I was also very lucky that a very nice uncle, who decided that I must get to the top of my educational career, sponsored my education. I went to one of the best secondary schools in Lagos, CMS Grammar School, and then to the University of Lagos to study medicine. I also went to the University College Hospital, Ibadan to do my postgraduate. That’s why I believe in this Nigeria project because I have had the best that Nigeria can offer you as a young man.
The education I had is something you will compare to whatever you can get in the UK because at the time when we were schooling, the best people schooled in Nigeria. So, the standard of education was quite good. That’s why I also think we owe this country a lot, to be able to see how we can fix it.
People go to school now and throughout their education, they are not spending N200,000, which is completely subsidised. So, the government is still responsible for so many things, especially when it comes to education. It is not so direct anymore but in our days, we had the best of everything. All I needed was N45.00 to eat three square meals for a whole month. I went to primary school in Ebute-Meta, Lagos.
How did you feel about those days of beating and spanking as a child?
I was caught on the wrong side sometimes and of course, I was beaten. I was not one of those children who do the right thing most of the time, but most people will never notice because they see the good more than the bad. And then I love reading, so most of the time that was what people saw.
Looking at the level of moral decadence in the country and the quest for quick money among youths, comparing with your time, where is the missing point?
The missing point is the home. Everything is as a result of the disintegration of the family unit. In the past, everybody looked after children. When I was in the university, I went to the University of Ife and somebody that knew me saw me there and reported me. My allowance was reduced as a result of that because they felt that I had too much money on my hands. Now, things have changed. So the family unit has broken down. The situation now is either there is no father at home or the father is just there. There are no consequences for bad behaviour and the church is not helping. In churches now, children are going missing; everything is just crazy and there are no consequences for bad behaviour at every level.
What can bring about the consequences?
We need to rejig our values. When we were kids, if your family had money and people didn’t understand where your father got his money from, we wouldn’t play with you. But now, who cares where you get your money? So, those are the values that we have lost. And I think until we start going back to get those values, which I don’t know if it’s possible, but if not, we have to live with what we have created for ourselves.
How did you perceive the disparity between the rich and poor growing up?
When I was in secondary school, we were all in the same school with the children of the governor and ex-governors. When Andrew Young was in Nigeria, when he was still a U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria in the 70s, his son went to CMS Grammar School. The son of our gateman was in the same school with the son of the governor. But what we do now is that only people who can pay for dollars separate themselves somewhere while those who can’t pay carry desks on their heads.
So, I think we need to go back to such things that the rich don’t just put themselves in one corner and allow the poor to wallow in another corner. We need to have this mixture from a very young age of different categories of people. And you will see sometimes that some of those people who you think are from very poor backgrounds are the ones that have character. And character is the most important attribute of anybody. That is what we are missing now, because people no longer emphasise that character. That is why leadership and society are failing.
Did you at any point think of becoming a medical doctor?
Actually as a child, I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I just loved planes and wanted to fly planes.
What brought about the switch from aeronautics to medicine?
I have been using glasses since I was in JSS1. I think it was in JSS2 that somebody made me realise that my eyes were bad, so I wouldn’t be able to fly a plane. That realisation hit me and then something happened.
So, while at CMS Grammar School, we were told to go to Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba, Lagos, where I think they were conducting experiments among secondary school students on heart racing and the effects of exercise. I was one of the people that were chosen to go from CMS Grammar School. And then I saw young men in white coats, young doctors. And I just said to myself, this is where you belong. And that was it. Since that day, I changed fully to medicine.
And then when I suddenly realised that my eyes might not allow me to study aeronautics, I saw that almost all the people with white coats were wearing glasses so I said we had something in common. When I was writing my JAMB in 1978, my first, second and third choice was medicine. That was how I became a doctor.
Have you ever wished you had studied aeronautics in the cause of your profession as a doctor?
I still marvel at the plane and I still love the idea but I don’t miss it. I think I have been enjoying myself doing medicine. So, I guess everybody has his own calling. I still marvel at how people can have 300 lives in their hands at once as a pilot. Because they are flying about 300 people at once and that is awesome.
Is your wife also a doctor too?
No, she’s a nurse.
How did you meet her?
Where else does a doctor meet a nurse? It’s in the hospital (laughter).
In what circumstance did you meet her?
Oh gosh! I think I was a youth corps member then. I just came into the hospital and that was my first day in the hospital. So, I saw this fine and dashing young lady. Hmm, one thing led to the other and another to the other and here we are 30 years after that experience (laughter).
Were you really prepared for marriage then?
No, I was a young man enjoying myself. But after a while I said, why not pull the trigger.
How did she magically prepare your mind to tie the knot?
She is just a nice woman and she understood me. She understood the fact that everything around me was trying to build a career. She could understand and fit into that dream. And that was the most important to me.
Do you find time to play with her and rest of family members?
Yes, once I’m not traveling, I sit down with them. Many years ago, when I was developing myself, I didn’t have time for my family and I think this is the payback time to be with them. I like being with my family. I just want to stay around them.
What is the funniest thing you have ever done as a young man, father and a husband?
I can’t remember anything now but I went to a very eventful school. I could have probably been a jester. I just know that everything about me should be taken lightly.
That is the way I cope with life and I make fun of myself too. So, when I make fun of people, some people will get offended but for me, that is just who I am. I always find fun out of everything, so I can’t really say what the funniest thing is.
Outside your career, how do you unwind?
I love football. I watch a lot of football. I’m more of a spectator than anything. I have never really participated in sports because I hate injuries. Also, since I discovered that you could spend time with your family, I have started enjoying it. Medicine initially took all my time, but now it’s different. I tried playing golf but I have not succeeded. I used to love parties and dancing, but now it’s different. And maybe COVID-19 also taught me that you should stay somewhere. But I still love dancing.
Who are your Nigerian favourite artistes?
Olamide is my favorite Nigerian artist.
What’s your dancing step like?
Don’t try me ooo, I dey gbese ooo (laughter)
Which meals have way to your heart?
I just eat whatever I’m given and eat to survive. I eat good meals but everything has to be limited. I like plantain, but you can’t eat too much plantain. I still go for jolly off rice once in a while when I can.
What other hobbies do you have?
I used to do a lot of table tennis but not anymore. I love reading more than anything. It’s probably my best pastime. It doesn’t have to be anything serious, maybe novels.
How would you describe yourself?
It’s mixed, but I’m mostly a quiet and reserved person. On the outside though, it’s different because I have to perform roles.
What would you say about your dress-sense?
From a young age, I have always loved wearing what I’m comfortable with, although that changes sometimes. Also, I’m more of an English-wear person, but now as I grow older, more of native tend to creep in. But I’m much more comfortable with jeans and a T-shirt. And then because of the role I have to play, a jacket comes in.
There’s no doubt you are collector of good colognes. What designers of perfume do you wear?
Yes, I love perfumes. I don’t have any preference but I’m a collector of good love perfumes.
What is your favourite fashion piece?
A wristwatch. I can’t go out without it and I miss it when I do. I won’t feel complete.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.