Soft-spoken and amiable, there are perhaps only few persons in the world today that can boast of having witnessed the type of trauma and pain that she has experienced over the last 22 years. At 52, and showing no sign of slowing down, Irene Olumese has indeed walked through the valley of the shadow of death, coming out unscathed at the end. Born to parents from Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, but raised in Ibadan, Oyo State, the nutrition expert has in fact seen life from terrifying angles.
Nursing the dream of becoming something big in life as a young girl growing up in the ancient city of Ibadan, Olumese’s journey took a tragic turn when she clocked 27 after she was hit by a chronic respiratory disease. As a result of the difficulty associated with breathing, she developed severe coughing that not only made her life a living hell but also robbed her of many things. So, for the next 20 years, she coughed repeatedly, defying every solution embraced to bring her relief.
“I was in my second year in the University of Ibadan when I realised that I had a serious health challenge,” Olumese said, while sharing her story with our correspondent earlier in the week. “I found it difficult to breathe once in a while but I didn’t really let the situation bother me because I thought it was just asthma.
“But while undergoing my National Youth Service Corps programme in Niger State, the condition became very serious. I was coughing ceaselessly. In 1993, a year after I got married, doctors found a cyst in my lungs. A surgery to remove it was advised and performed at the University College Hospital in Ibadan but it didn’t stop the coughing.
“I coughed repeatedly every day for 20 years. At the end of that period, my doctors told me that they had exhausted all options for me to continue to live except they changed my lungs. It was a terrible news for me and my family,” she added.
The weeks and months that followed that period were not only perilous and agonising but also devastating for the former Nutrition Expert with the United Nations Children’s Fund and her household. The ailment was gradually killing her with each passing day while options to save her life were fast fading away by the minute. Olumese needed new lungs if she was to keep living, according to doctors. It was the only way out.
“To save my life, a lung donor had to be quickly found,” she told our correspondent. “As a result of our culture and belief in Nigeria, it was difficult to find such here. It took three and a half years for doctors to find somebody whose lungs would be compatible with me because everything has to match so that your body doesn’t reject the lungs.
“I had to be moved to Geneva in Switzerland where the donor was found and the transplant was done,” she said.
While the transplant marked a major victory in her quest to stay alive, it also signalled the beginning of fresh problems for the mother of two, sadly. From fluctuating between life and death for weeks, to having her physiognomy changed significantly, the problems were endless. Having another person’s lungs tucked inside her body indeed brought all kinds of trouble for the Lagos-born woman.
“Though the surgery was successful, I soon developed severe complications afterwards,” Olumese said. “As a result of that, I was in a coma for four weeks. By the time I finally came out of a coma, I was told that things had really got bad. There wasn’t enough blood circulation to all parts of my body.
“I was told that there was not enough supply to my hands and legs and as a result, they would have to amputate my limbs. I mean, after 20 years of living with this problem to now be told that you have new lungs but have to lose both hands and legs, was quite tough for me.
“Miraculously, my hands recovered, I learnt to write again with my hand but my legs did not recover, they had to be amputated.”
Despite losing her lower limbs following the fitting of new lungs in her body, Olumese remained in a critical condition. For the next 119 days that followed that surgery, she remained confined to the hospital bed, not knowing if she would survive or eventually be consumed by the health crisis. Her husband and two sons had to carry on with life without her wifely and motherly care. Emotionally and psychologically – they were broken. It was the worst experience they ever could have wished for.
“Apart from spending 119 days in the hospital after the lung transplant, for the seven years that followed, I was constantly on oxygen. I had to remain in Switzerland because there was no way I could be on oxygen for that long in Nigeria and still be alive.
“There were several times during that period when I saw death and thought that it was going to happen. My situation was so bad that I could not leave my bedroom. I was on oxygen 24 hours of the day. For the last three years, I had to be on ventilator for my lungs to breathe.
“My husband had to keep working because my medical bills had to be paid, including the children’s school fees. His work involved a lot of travelling, so the children had to step up to take care of themselves and me.
“But after we did that for a couple of years and saw that it was going to affect their education because they couldn’t concentrate, we had to allow other friends to help us with some house work. That was how we managed during that period.
“Sadly, the situation literally wiped us out financially. It took a heavy toll on us and wiped out our savings. It was a challenging period, especially because we were in Europe where there were so many bills to pay, including medical. We were practically left with nothing by the time God brought me out of that very critical condition,” she said.
Now able to take in fresh air and walk with the aid of prosthesis, which cost over $30,000 (about N11m), Olumese’s new ‘feet’ have indeed found grace, trudging on strongly in life’s journey as she makes new inroads by the day. Dedicating much of her time these days to giving hope to amputees within and outside Nigeria, the former UN employee, who once served as Nutrition Specialist for the agency in Ghana, told Saturday PUNCH that having another shot at life through new lungs, has inspired her to commit time and resources to support persons living with disabilities in the country. Through her foundation – Feet of Grace – the 52-year-old has been able to provide artificial limbs for 34 Nigerians in the five years she has embarked on this charitable act, while also supporting several others in different ways during this period. For her, it is the best way she can appreciate her maker for raising her back from the ‘dead’.
“It was in the process of trying to regain my life, a process that took almost a year, that the idea of setting up a foundation came to me,” she said. “It’s a foundation that would benefit all the people who have lost their limbs and are unable to procure prosthetic limbs.
“Mine cost almost $30,000; not everybody in this situation can afford it. So, I felt we could do something to support people. We have been able to provide prosthesis for 34 amputees in Nigeria in the five years that we have run the foundation. But we still need money to be able to provide for others waiting in line.
“Seeing smiles on the faces of those that have benefitted from our intervention gives me new life. It makes every day of the 20 years of pain I experienced worth it. Those 20 years, 119 days in hospital, four weeks in a coma, have taught me never to give up about anything in life. I can never forget that period,” she added.
Olumese, who had all her three degrees at UI – bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in Nutrition Sciences – and worked at UCH for a while before moving to the UN agency, now wants government to put basic things in place to make life better for persons living with disabilities. According to her, instead of mere display of pity, putting basic infrastructure in place will make life better for those in this category.
“Our environment is not disability friendly,” she noted. “Many of us can’t go into buildings. We can’t go to toilets because almost everywhere is not disability friendly. It’s difficult for persons living with disabilities to move around. Government must act fast.
“There is a significant number of disabled persons who can be productive in this country if the environment is sensitive to their situations. They can add value to this country if things are put in place. All that persons living with disabilities are asking for is support, we don’t need pity,” she added quickly.
Asked how she feels today living with the lungs of a total stranger, the 52-year-old, who shuttles between Nigeria and her adopted Switzerland these days, said that she sometimes feels like she is carrying someone else inside her even though her body has become used to the new organ.
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m harbouring someone else inside my body but because I have become used to it now, I quickly get over that thought. For the fact that I chose to live, fought to live, God gave me the grace to witness His goodness in the land of the living.
“My life is indeed proof that there is no situation He cannot change for good,” she said.