I am exhausting every gift of God in me, Says Alonge
The Chief Medical Director (CMD) of the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Prof. Temitope Alonge, whose eight-year tenure ended last Thursday, February 28, this year, spoke to MUYIWA ADEYEMI in Ibadan on the turning point of his life, from a weed smoking boy in Ajegunle area of Lagos to becoming a Professor of Medicine, his achievements and the things he wished he had achieved as CMD of Nigeria’s flagship hospital.
Why the choice of medicine and not something else?
I grew up with my great grandmother before moving to Ajegunle in Lagos and I was there during the war in 1968 and at that time, we had violence all over the place. We had soldiers living in our house who had pistols and so I grew up among drug barons. We sold Indian hemp and used to eat the seed first before smoking the weed. I was 10 and all I saw was violence. The soldiers in the house used to put their pistols and guns under the mattress and there were lots of stabbing and plenty of atrocities with women. Those were just a few of the things I saw as a young boy. But a destiny changer came when my uncle asked me to follow him to see a friend who had an okada (motorcycle) accident and I went with him to Araromi Maternity. I saw those gentlemen in white clothes attending to my uncle’s friend and I said to my uncle, “who are those men?” He saw that I was quiet and he asked why I was asking but I said again, “who is this man? Why is he quiet and kind?” He said that was a doctor. I thought he meant his name was doctor. I couldn’t speak again but I managed to say, “daddy, I want to be a doctor,” and he responded, “you?” I said “yes,” he replied, “you have to work very hard,” and I said I would try.
That time, I was struggling with primary five and had no clue what doctors do or what it meant to be one. I only saw somebody with a white coat and that was it. Then, I told my dad and he said, “You have to know Physics, Chemistry and Biology.” I took all his textbooks and started reading about experiments in Physics, how egg turn to lava, lava turns to pupa and pupa to adult butterfly. When I got to secondary school, I kept telling myself that I wanted to be a doctor. I attended African Church Grammar School, Oka in Ondo State. After three years, my father moved me to Owo High School, under the late Baba Adekunle Ajasin. I felt the syllabus was too advanced and wanted to go back to African Church Grammar School, but my father refused. I called my friends and said, “You know what, I want to be a doctor and I’m told that I have to be very good in Physics, Chemistry and Biology and you people will have to help me.” So, we formed a club, called Young Scientists Club. Today, the leader of the club is the Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Professor Ogunmodede and it includes an engineer based in the United States (US) and a consultant dentist in Maiduguri, among others. That club gave me the opportunity to know things I didn’t know, because I kept asking them.
To read Medicine, they said I must have Grade 1 and to God’s glory, I had Grade 1 in 1975 and then did some A Levels. So, they offered me science in the university, but I refused and said if they didn’t allow me to change to Medicine, I was going to kill myself. I then went into extra-mural classes and was doing adult education classes in UI. I was working in the morning, then adult education in the evening until I got admission to UI in 1977/78 to study Medicine, which had been on my mind from the age of 10.
Quite revealing that you had experience with weed before your turning point. There have been arguments over the usefulness of weed, as a medical practitioner, what do you have to say?
To be honest with you, most medications are extracts from weeds. When we say weed, it is not synonymous to Indian hemp, because Indian hemp is a herb. All cocaines are extracted from what looks like a flour. So, many, if not all, of your medications are extracts either from the leaf, stem, bark or roots of herbs. It is only now that we are beginning to make drugs in the lab. We know the molecular structure of a particular drug, so we want to alter the drug to be more potent and we begin to add the chemicals to each other. Before now, virtually everything that we needed was available in the water, in the leaf and soil that we all live with. A leaf is a herb and has been used before it was demonised because of what it was used for.
So, we have medical marijuana, which is the one I am talking about. Medical marijuana has been found to be useful in reducing the incidence of epileptic attacks and cerebral palsy. It is found to be useful and has been recommended and it has dosages. The non-medical marijuana, which is the one that you find commonly, is of different varieties. Just as you have mangoes, the variety called medical marijuana is licenced to be used, and I have no objection to that. Even the antibiotics you take come from leaves, if you know the leaves that some of them come from, you probably won’t take them. So, we shouldn’t demonise it. However, those who use it with the intention of being high have different objectives and the dosage they use is not regulated. For medical marijuana, there is a particular dose that should work and has what it should do. But these guys who smoke weed or Indian hemp, because they want to commit atrocities, have no limit. Therefore, the function is altered or the effect becomes different.
So, at that time, I could not even remember what effects it had on me. Although I knew I was a truant; I was actually taught rascality, because I came in without speaking English or Yoruba, but only spoke my native dialect in Oka and these guys were fond of harassing me. Since I couldn’t speak Yoruba and I couldn’t speak English, they thought I was Igbo and in a bid to free myself, I have to build up physical strength and fought my way through to the number three in Ago Hausa Street in Ajegunle, which was a gang war.
Did it ever occur to you as a young doctor that one day, you could head a hospital like UCH?
No. It never occurred to me, because I was very apolitical. Even though I was involved in students’ union politics, the only thing that bothered me when I came back from England was that I couldn’t believe it was the UCH that I left in 1990. It was abysmal. People just did whatever they liked; they had no culture. UCH had a culture that I knew, which was to try and infuse that culture into people. I was burdened by the decadence. My predecessor, Prof. Abiodun Ilesanmi, called me up to four times. The first time he said, “Oh Tope, I think you are going to be the next CMD,” and I said, “me? Sir, I’m not even thinking about such.” All I wanted to do was just to work for the system and reduce preventable deaths, go to the emergency department and work for two hours. Even when it was none of my business, I would dabble into medical cases. It was just a passion.
And then he said it the second time, and I said, “Sir, I have not told my wife. I am not even thinking about it.” On the third occasion, I said, “wait a minute, we have had this discussion two times and this is the third time you are asking me. Maybe I should even think about it.” So, I told my wife and it was on the third occasions I thought maybe I should imbibe the principles of Dr. Olusegun Mimiko (former Ondo State governor), who came from a rich family, had a hospital and saw that he was always giving people free drugs and said to himself that one day, he would be bankrupt and the only way he might be able to influence change was to get involved in politics and then help them. That was his guiding principle. I said to myself that maybe Mimiko was right. One way in which you can help these people and achieve your passion is to become the chief executive. That was the fourth time.
When you were announced as the CMD, how did you feel?
Well, I was very happy, but I knew it was going to be a huge responsibility. There were some things you would adduce as miracle or not. Maybe I shouldn’t say it now, but when I am writing my memoirs, I will put it in my memoirs. You would read it in my memoirs and then you will tell me whether it was a miracle or not. But whatever it is, I told my late pastor that I was going to contest. The first thing he told me was that it was not meant for good people, that it was meant for people who could be ruthless, wicked, belong to a cult and that it was going to tarnish my Christianity, and I asked why. If it is service, it doesn’t matter what your beliefs are. If you want to serve, it doesn’t matter whether you are Muslim, Christian. I said but I wanted to serve and I couldn’t be bothered by such hearsay. I told my pastor and he said, “Well, every position requires a lot of spiritual support.” So, they declared a fast of one week in the church, people prayed and fasted. And between 2011 and today, they pray for me three times a week and I believe the support of the spiritual has been the epicenter of everything I have done.
Many have acknowledged your achievement in getting philanthropists and corporate bodies to assist in improving services at the hospital. How did you achieve this?
All you have to do is to identify those who have willing hearts and approach them. When I approached late Tony Anenih, he asked, “Why do you want me to endow the Geriatric Centre?” I replied jokingly, “I think you are in the geriatric age group sir, I know you have a good heart and I believe you would like to support this noble cause.” When I went to meet Kessington Adebutu, through his daughter, because sometimes you have to talk to people that know them very well, the daughter spoke to Baba and Baba was very amiable. I went over to meet him again and just prayed that God should touch his heart. The moment I got to Baba, he said, “Why this rehab centre?” I told him that the Chief Tony Anenih Centre could not cater for acute cases, because when they come in, they feel better and they go home. However, they shouldn’t be allowed to go home like that, but should rehabilitate fully and back to their normal self before they go home. So, he said, “Okay, I’m going to put it in my budget for the year.”
The PPP projects that we have, first was Fidelity Bank. I spoke to the manager and explained that there was a lot of money in the health sector, in terms of investment and revenue, as long as good people patronise. Nobody wants to die, but not at the expense of what they have in their pocket. So, we don’t charge them excessively, but when they see the services, they pay. This was exactly what informed the involvement of banks and we have had Fidelity, Wema and Union Banks. Sometimes, I use some degree of subtle blackmail, because I have a friend who is supporting our facility centre now, who actually provided the revenue for the procurement of some equipment. So, I said I would go to his family house in Ibadan and tell them that he had not supported this institution and we just laughed about it and after a few minutes, he said, “You know what, I can actually support that project,” and I said, “yes, otherwise, I will go to the family house and I will report you.” And he supported it with N40million to buy the equipment we needed to start treating patients in that clinic.
How are you combining the work of a pastor and doctor?
I believe that every human being is a spirit being. You have a spirit, you have a soul and you have a body. I believe that a lot of challenges we have in our body can be deduced to our soul. People sit down and think about a lot of things that are not right. Sometimes, they don’t believe that good things can come their way. So, the soul is more like the melting point of thought process, but the spirit, we cannot see. I believe that nobody just dropped in from anywhere; there must be something else about you that you cannot see, and that is a spirit. You don’t think about it, but it is part of you. So, you must believe that when the doctor treats you, you are going to feel well. If I give you paracetamol and you feel it won’t work for you, it won’t work. I don’t restrict myself from medications when I don’t feel well. I just had a hole in a tooth filled up yesterday, I’m not saying the hole should just get filled up on its own, it could, if my faith is strong enough, but the bottom line is that God has provided people with the knowledge to be able to do such things, so why can’t they practise what they know? I’m an orthopedic surgeon, if you twist your knee and you want to pray about it and your faith is that strong, fine. But if you don’t have that much faith, let me put a telescope in it.
So, as a spirit man, I also believe in the physical, and that is why we trained to go to medical school. As regards my job, I believe I need to have inner peace to be able to deliver my job, and I consult my inner peace, that is, I pray specifically for guidance. Everything we do in life is very complex. I don’t know tomorrow, but I know God knows tomorrow, so, since God knows tomorrow, it is safer for me to just give tomorrow to him. I do the best I can do today, I do everything I can and that is why you hardly find me sitting in the office. I want to make sure things get done. You know why? I am an ardent believer of a passage in the bible, which I teach in Sunday School, it is in John 9: 4, which says, “I will do the work of Him that sent me while it is day, for the night cometh when no one can work.” In the next couple of years, I am not going to be able to practise, because my hands would be a little tremulous. Every gift of God in me, I am exhausting them, so that when I am old and walking around with stick, I don’t have any regrets. I played football from the day I entered UI until the day I left medical school. I played football and badminton and ran 400 metres. I did everything that a young boy does to be happy. I played the drum set in fellowship for about 13 years and I can’t do these anymore but I have no regrets. I don’t like to have regrets and so I want to exhaust every gift that I have, including service to humanity.
We set up the Patient Indigent Fund because I discovered that many indigent patients come here and most times, we keep putting hands in our pockets to give money to them. So in 2012, I began the Fund. Every month, they take a specific amount from my salary from Abuja and the money goes into a pool. From that pool, we have had millions of naira and so when I see members of staff who need to be on NHIS, but don’t have money, I say “give him from there.” With N2, 500, I can keep somebody alive. Cannula, plaster, spirit is not up to N2, 500, but that is all they need for resuscitation. I don’t know what tomorrow would hold and so today, I would do all I can.
As a medical doctor and pastor, do you believe in miracles?
I do believe there is a God and if there is a God, then there is miracle. Since I believe in God, of course, I believe that God performs miracles. People have it in different ways. Miracle is not just you having a tumour and I take it off by prayers. That is not the only thing that is called a miracle. The fact that you just sleep and wake up is a miracle. You don’t know the system and all that has happened all night. We have a professor who put a video recording in his room, because he goes to sleep at night on the bed and wakes up on the floor in the morning. So, he puts a camera to find out what was the problem and it is a sleep disorder and this man had to have treatment. You sleep on the bed and wake up in the morning on the bed and you are not on the floor, what has sustained you? Everyday that you live is a miracle.
What are the things you wished to but couldn’t achieve as CMD?
To be honest with you, I had started thinking about computerisation of the entire hospital system. We had three trials and failed, but the fourth one is now succeeding, though too late for me to handle, but I believe very strongly that my successor would do an excellent job in completing the computerisation. We have successfully done the one for Geriatric Centre, which has electronic medical records now. The patient comes in, is captured on the computer and his/her details are forwarded by pressing a button to the nursing desk. Vital signs are done, the nurse presses a button and it is sent unto the cloud and the doctor presses a button to retrieve the result from the cloud about the patient. The clerk would then press a button and forward the prescription to the pharmacy, which knows what to do. In that small microcosm, it is working, but it is now to enlarge it into the bigger hospital. We have begun with the health card, the next is payment option. That is one area I regret that was not fully implemented.
Were you a troublesome child?
No, unless you provoked me, because one thing I couldn’t tolerate was people being cheated. I can go out of my way to ensure that justice is done, particularly if the person is underprivileged.
Were you a lady’s man when you were younger?
I didn’t have the privilege of being a lady’s man because ladies in Ajegunle abused me, just not physically. I was having a shower, which is where my fighting with ladies began in Ajegunle, you know it is a communal place. You wake up * at 5am and queue up to use the bathroom and the latrine. I was in the bathroom and didn’t know that the girls were trying to see me naked. The bathroom had a hook, which you can remove from inside. So, they peeped through a hole and saw I had soap in my eyes. They then put their hands across and opened the door. Of course, I tried to cover my private part, and when I finished having my bath, I went looking for them. They ran out from the house for almost the whole day. By the time they came back, I had calmed down. That was the beginning of my stress against girls. When I got to school, I fought all of the girls until I got to Form One. I was reading the English Literature for them in my class and there was this young girl also from Lagos. Suddenly, I saw the boys talking to her and she started cat walking. I went to slap her and said, “What’s that supposed to mean?” I was very aggressive against ladies and it was a carry over from that experience in Ajegunle. But over time, I softened. I think it helped me because I was not easily aroused as an undergraduate.
Were you a victim of racism during your time in London?
I had many bad experiences, but I wasn’t deterred. I suffered verbal attacks and was once chased in a car by some hoodlums who wanted to kill me. I escaped death one day because I said what they didn’t like. Anything that you say that has to do with the monarch in England, they will come after you. But I escaped it because they didn’t know what to say. For almost a week, nobody talked to me in the hospital. But I told them I was going back to my country. So, it took me just two weeks when I had the prompting of the spirit of God to come back home. It wasn’t difficult for me to carry my luggage after five and a half years to come back to Nigeria.
Where and how did you meet your wife?
Well, she used to sing in our Christian group and I played the drums. So, we went for somebody else’s wedding and somehow, we bear the same first name. Somebody called Tope, but the person was calling her, so she went to meet the brother and I also went to meet the brother. We both got there and I said “you called me?” he said, “No, I was calling her.” So, I asked, “Is your name also Tope?” and she said yes. That was the first time we met. After that, we met in UCH, because she came to see her big sister and from then, we carried on as friends. She was a broadcaster working with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and I was always assisting her as a floor manager. Finally, she agreed to marry me and today we’ve been married for 30 years.
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