Eighty-year-old retired nurse, Mrs. Oluremi Omotosho, shares the story of her life and career with TOLUWANI ENIOLA
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Lagos on February 17, 1938, to the late Mr. Olufemi Yewande of Okepopo, Lagos, and the late Mrs. Sweety Yewande. My father was a railway engineer while my mother was a dietician. I joined the Lagos University Teaching Hospital in 1968 and worked in the surgical /medical wards where I retired as a chief nursing officer. I am also a past President of Reagan Memorial Baptist Girls Secondary School Old Girls’ Association and a member of the alumni Board of Trustees till date. I was very fortunate to go to school then.
Why did you consider yourself fortunate to go to school?
In those days, people believed that girls should not be sent to school. My parents were educated; so, they insisted I must attend school. However, it took me a long time to get accepted into a school because I had a small stature. New pupils were asked to move their hands across their heads until the tip of their palms could touch their ears. If the tip of your palm could not touch your ear, then you were assumed unqualified to begin school.
Tell us about your education.
By the time my hands were long enough to reach the opposite side of my ear, I gained admission into the African Bethel School at Ebute Metta, Lagos. Because my father was a railway engineer, he was frequently transferred to different parts of the country such as Kaduna and Kano.
This frequent movement affected my education. When the transfers got more frequent, my mother put me in the care of my grandfather, E. J. Idowu, who was the first person to sell mosquito nets in the whole of Nigeria at Durodolu Stores. I lived with him before I went into the boarding house at Reagan Memorial Baptist Girls Secondary School, Yaba, Lagos. I later studied nursing and midwifery at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, Oyo State.
What was it like growing up in Lagos at the time?
In those days, there was nothing like traffic and not many cars plied the roads. We never envied those who had cars, especially those of us whose parents didn’t have cars. We enjoyed walking to school then. The sanitary inspectors, who wore khaki trousers and helmets, were everywhere to maintain cleanliness in the environment.
We didn’t have refuse that litter our roads. There were many English men around and they didn’t keep dustbins to overflow. They cleared the refuse regularly and everywhere was clean. We enjoyed the allure of flowers. We enjoyed the aroma of nice flowers as we sauntered to school in the morning. This good smell of the environment was what we took to school. It was refreshing.
Which prominent Nigerian was your classmate in school?
The late MKO Abiola was my classmate in Owu African School, Abeokuta. We used to act Shakespeare’s plays together in the school. I acted as Juliet and Abiola acted Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Abiola was a great mathematician in school then. He got 100 per cent in examinations that had to do with mathematics. The teachers also gave him 100 per cent score for neatness. I was good at literature and English. He used to call me “oyinbo” because I used to get the highest score in English. At the school, I was a popular sports girl. At the Owu African School, I usually took the first leg of our 220 yards relay races and long jump. I won many sports laurels for the school.
Why did you choose nursing instead of medicine and surgery?
I had a cousin who was the head of nursing department at the UCH, Ibadan. Her name is Mrs. Winnifred Igun. I used to visit her at the UCH where I developed interest in the way the nurses dressed smartly. I told her I would like to be a nurse. My mother was also working at the hospital as a dietician. When I visited my mother in the catering department, I admired the lifestyle of nurses. I decided I would be a nurse because of this background.
What were the highlights of your career at LUTH?
After my education, I travelled back to Lagos from UCH, Ibadan, to join LUTH on May 1, 1968. I was in charge of the surgical wards and was part of the first set of experts that started the first dialysis centre in 1981 at the hospital. That kidney treatment experience took me to many countries to present papers in conferences. I later went for post-graduate studies in renal dialysis and transplant at Hammersmith Hospital, London from 1974–1975. I also travelled to study Peritoneal Dialysis at George Town University, Washington D.C. I am a co-author of a medical book, ‘Frontiers in Peritoneal Dialysis.’
I was fortunate to be the only one sponsored for the post-graduate studies on renal dialysis. A screening was done for the nurses considered for the training and fortunately, I was the only one that didn’t have hepatitis. If you had hepatitis, they wouldn’t allow you to travel.
I didn’t have the disease and that was how I was able to travel out for the course. By the time I came back in 1975, LUTH was not ready to start the dialysis centre; so, they put me in the surgical wards until they started the dialysis centre in 1981. Other doctors came to join us at the dialysis centre. We worked tirelessly to put that centre on the map. It is the first dialysis centre in the whole of Nigeria and West Africa.
What were the values you cherished that advanced your career?
One thing that kept me strong all through was the quest for knowledge. I rose to the pinnacle of my career as a chief nursing officer by the grace of God, hard work and a strong desire for excellence. I kept on improving my knowledge by travelling to different places.
I made good use of the opportunities to travel abroad because travelling itself is education. Whenever I travelled out of Nigeria, I would visit a hospital’s dialysis centre where I would plead with the officials to allow me into their clinic as an observer.
They allowed me to learn. I made friends with foreign nurses and returned with knowledge of best practices. I was also a labour leader at LUTH. I was the Chairman of the Nigerian Association of Nurses and Midwives, LUTH chapter.
What was the most challenging period of your career as a nurse?
Being a labour leader meant that I was always challenging the government to improve on the welfare of nurses and to provide adequate infrastructure in the hospital. One that I remember vividly was when the government dragged us before the court for going on strike for five months. We had been demanding a wage increase among other demands. I fought headlong with other unionists.
While the struggle got to a critical stage, I had to abandon my home. I told my husband that I had to leave home because if they caught me at home, they would imprison me and the struggle would be foiled because I was the main leader and the target. Thankfully, we got a victory at the Industrial Arbitration Panel. My husband used to come and check me where I was. He gave me all the support I needed.
How did you meet your husband?
I met my husband on a Valentine’s Day in 1961. I met him through a cousin of mine, Mrs. Yemi Johnson. Mrs. Johnson was also studying midwifery then at UCH, Ibadan. So, on that Valentine’s Day, she asked me to accompany her to her fiancé’s place. I initially turned down the request because I didn’t want to miss my dinner at the hostel but she insisted that I must follow her. Unfortunately, we didn’t meet her fiancé at home. We were told that he had gone to his friend’s place at Yemetu in Ibadan. The friend was one Engr. Omotosho, who just returned from the United Kingdom after studying there.
While she was encouraging me to go with her, we struck a deal. She would call a taxi going to Yemetu, while I would be calling the one going to UCH. The first taxi to stop would determine where we would all go. Luckily, it was the one going to Yemetu that stopped first.
Engineer Omotosho was happy to see us. Both my cousin’s fiancé and Engineer Omotosho had known each other in the UK; so, they were talking about their UK experience because they studied there together. Omotosho entertained us and brought out cards to play.
He asked somebody to prepare something for us to eat. I insisted that I didn’t want to stay in the house because Omotosho was staring at me and I didn’t want to miss my dinner. They later brought food which we all ate. After then, he (Omotosho) visited UCH frequently to check on me. I told him I must finish my course. I was still in my first year in school then. I asked him if he would wait for me. He said he would, but I never believed that he had no one he was dating. I even thought he must have had a child with someone else.
Even on our wedding in 1964, when the pastor asked the congregation, “Is there anyone here who has any reason why these two should not be joined as husband and wife,” I still looked back, expecting to see a woman with his child. I was scared because I thought a woman would emerge from the auditorium to say he had been married. Up till today, we stand strong. Since then, we have been together and God has sustained the relationship and blessed us with good children who are doing fine in their endeavours.
You have been married for over 50 years. What are the secrets of your union?
I trust him and he trusts me. We don’t forget our birthdays. I know the birthdays of my relations. People call me an encyclopaedia of birthdays. My husband and I would call our relations on the telephone on their wedding anniversaries, birthdays and other memorable days. I cherish it. My husband is very trustworthy. Whenever he travels, we go together. He used to tell his friends that I must go with him everywhere. I want to say he is very loving and kind. He performs his duties and does not wait for my money.
What is your take on the health system in Nigeria?
The state of health in Nigeria gives me concern. It pains me that when patients come for dialysis, the available resources are not available. During my career in the civil service, we had shortage of syringes and needles. Sometimes, we bought them with our money because of the state of the patients.
There is a massive infrastructural deficit in our hospitals. The ambulance may not work. Sometimes, we experienced power failure when doing dialysis for a patient.
The health sector is not well funded. The nurses are frustrated. At the HIV clinic, sometimes, we didn’t get gloves to protect ourselves. We used our money to buy gloves because the supply did not come in time. There was also a shortage of manpower which unfortunately persists in many hospitals today. They call it MAN (meaning you do morning afternoon and evening shift together). I can talk about the problems of health in Nigeria for a whole day.
What is the secret of your good health?
I will like to attribute it to God and good nutrition. My husband is 85 years old and he is still strong. I always advise people to take good care of their health by eating good food. Take time to rest and eat vegetables. We are blessed with fruits in Nigeria. When one fruit’s season goes, another one will come. I love coriander (called ebolo in Yoruba). It’s a good medicine for the kidney. The ewedu (Jew’s Mallow) is folic acid. It helps the body. I drink plenty of water to flush the system. I eat waterleaf, bitter leaf and other fruits and vegetables.
How do you feel at 80?
I feel so strong. The only challenge I have is my eye. A week before March 31, 1986, my husband went to open a finance house in Aba, Abia State. As we were coming back, there was a strong whirlwind which almost knocked our vehicle off.
Because we opened the windows a bit, the wind hit me in my left eyes and paralysed me partly. I could not chew foods for a while. My face drooped. My eyes started watering and I was admitted to a hospital. This was three weeks to a presentation I needed to do in New York. They had booked my hotel. I am a member of the European Dialysis and Transplant Nurses Association. We were to have a conference in New York. I told them I had been on a fluid diet for one week in the hospital. I told them I would not be able to attend the conference. They insisted I must come so they could treat me in the US. I got discharged from the hospital and in just a day, I got a quick treatment at their physiotherapy department. That day, I was able to eat rice and minced meat. The white people invest heavily in their health system and they value human lives. Nigerian leaders should fund the health sector more, equip our hospitals and ensure that health workers get their due rewards.