International Women's Day: Tragedy led her to launch airlift service in West Africa

Dr Ola Orekunrin-Brown started West Africa's first air ambulance service after a personal tragedy. Her younger sister died after she fell ill and could not be airlifted to the hospital in time. PHOTO: FLYING DOCTORS NIGERIA

LAGOS - Few would have predicted that the first air ambulance service in West Africa would be launched by a 23-year-old woman.

The year was 2007, and the woman Dr Ola Orekunrin-Brown. Following a personal tragedy, she channelled her grief and courage into an initiative that has saved hundreds of lives.

Born in England, she grew up in a small town in south-eastern England and studied medicine at the University of York. While she was completing her studies, her 12-year-old sister fell ill while on a holiday with relatives in Nigeria. She needed to be airlifted to a hospital, but the closest air ambulance they could find was in South Africa. She died before help arrived.

The tragedy would stay with her as she completed her medical studies, graduating at age 21 to become one of the youngest doctors in the country. Once she started working, she began saving every penny she could, with the idea of perhaps starting an air ambulance charity.

She eventually travelled to Nigeria to take up the challenge.

She decided that a business would be a better way to realise her goals, and she went about raising money. With no business experience, she also had to deal with tedious bureaucratic processes and other issues.

But her drive and perseverance paid off and before long, she became the chief executive of Flying Doctors Nigeria.

Dr Ola Orekunrin-Brown came up with the idea of using airlines' unsold space to transport patients. PHOTO: FLYING DOCTORS NIGERIA

Her company offered air evacuation services to the private and public sectors, as well as wealthy individuals, airlifting injured workers from offshore oil rigs, for example, or repatriating sick British expats.

But with international evacuations costing about US$60,000 (S$79,000) and local evacuations about US$20,000, she knew she needed to offer a more affordable option as well.

She came up with the idea of using airlines' unsold space, building special units that could easily be installed over a row of seats. The ingenious concept managed to bring the cost down to about US$1,000, and has been a win-win for airlines and patients alike.

Based in Lagos, Flying Doctors now has outposts across the country, with 20 charter aircraft and 44 doctors.

Dr Orekunrin-Brown has made it a point of ensuring that her company's services are available to people in remote areas of Nigeria, saving the critically ill, as well as victims of car accidents, gunshot wounds or other traumas.

She has been named one of the 100 Lionesses of Africa - extraordinary African women whose example serves to inspire other potential entrepreneurs. She said: "Here's to the women who will change the narrative of African women: May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them."


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