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Tragedy that turned Dr Ola into a Nigerian lifesaver

Posted 13 February 2020 · Add Comment

After a personal tragedy, Dr Ola Brown set herself the ambitious task of changing the west African healthcare sector by setting up Flying Doctors Nigeria. Marcella Nethersole reports.

It was while studying to become a doctor overseas that tragedy struck for Dr Ola Brown. Her sister lost her life while on holiday in Nigeria.
The reason? The local hospital was unable to manage her sickle cell anaemia and, after a frantic search by Brown and her family for an air ambulance to take her sister to a suitable medical facility, none was found. There was no air ambulance.
That, for Brown, was the single drive to change the narrative that one of the biggest challenges for healthcare in Africa is access to advanced care – and she was going to do something about it.
After graduating in the UK – her post-graduate areas of study include pre-hospital emergency care, healthcare leadership and healthcare delivery – Brown worked in acute medicine for several years, including in Tokyo, before returning to Nigeria.
She now had an answer to the healthcare problem – to start up her own air ambulance service.
“After the death of my sister, my mission to this day is to ensure that fewer people die because they live too far away from a hospital or medical facility,” said Brown.
“So, I looked for a way to make the largest impact I could on the Nigerian healthcare sector, and that way was founding Flying Doctors Nigeria.”
Now 12 years old, it is the leading Nigerian air ambulance service providing urgent medical assistance in trauma situations and emergencies across west Africa, where every second counts.
“We are one of the first air ambulance companies that established a specially designed medical cabin that fits into a scheduled commercial flight emergency transport unit,” explained Brown – herself a helicopter pilot with specialised training in aviation medicine.
“It is an advanced custom-designed unit that can transform a small section of a regular commercial flight into an intensive care unit in just 10 minutes. It uses the same equipment as can be found in an air ambulance, allowing for the same level of critical care to be administered in flight all at a fraction of the cost of a full air ambulance.”
The company’s facility is located at Quits Aviation Hangar in Lagos, where it has access to several aircraft, including its Hawker 800XP and Challenger 604.
“We have our own pilots and aviation personnel, making it easy for us to depart promptly in the case of an emergency,” explained Brown.
“We also have more than 200 doctors and nurses, made up of full-time personnel and locum medics.”
To this day, the company has saved countless lives in all types of situations.
Brown offers one example: “We transferred a critically unwell 27-year-old sickle cell patient from Lagos to Sokoto at no cost. He was in a near death condition at that time; the patient and his family members had almost given up. Today that situation has turned around, which makes me believe we can save more people all over the world.
“We also transfer sick and pre-term babies in our baby pod, pre and post-natal mothers, intubated patients, and quadriplegic patients, to name but a few.”
The company initially started with money raised by Brown from her work in the UK and Japan. Currently it is able to fund itself.
The doctor is not just a medic and pilot, but also an entrepreneur. She works tirelessly to highlight the poor healthcare in Africa and also advises various businesses, charities and governments on how to improve standards.
Also, along with two other directors, Brown runs leading early-stage venture capital firm, Greentree Investment Company, which provides growth capital to some of Africa’s “most exciting” tech start-ups.
“Greentree has invested in start-ups in various sectors including financial technology (fintech), media, software as a service (SaaS), agri-tech, manufacturing, e-commerce, health tech, and edutech, making it one of west Africa’s leading venture capital firms. The total value of the Greentree portfolio is almost $80 million,” said Brown.
If that’s not enough to keep her busy, she has also published various books, including Fixing Healthcare in Nigeria, writes articles for various medical journals, and is an international speaker – even taking to the stage for the UN and the World Economic Forum.
I asked Brown just how she is able to juggle all this work?
“I plan. I plan. I plan,” she said. “Being in the business of saving lives and getting feedback from patients we have helped live longer is a labour of love. It’s a sacrifice, and it changes your lifestyle completely. However, it has helped me plan my life away from work better than it used to be.
“I barely realise I am so busy as people get to remind me how busy I am by showing so much concern. When I am not overseeing the operational and administrative activities of the business, I watch business videos and a lot of documentaries. I have tons of business videos and business books I actually find very useful, especially for relaxation purposes. And, if all these are done, I ensure I get at least six hours of sleep.”
Brown, who is also a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, adds that she is forever excited to see Nigeria climb the global ranks in the healthcare system.
“I look forward to seeing us rank better in the world healthcare systems following the lists published by the World Health Organisation,” she explained. “Nigeria has been reported to have one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, ranking 187th out of 190 countries, so, I want this to change as soon as possible.”
Brown makes sure she helps other women around the world looking to achieve their ambitions through various platforms.
“I sit on the board of the professional women’s network (Lagos chapter) and I also share lessons and blogging on my social media as almost a million followers on LinkedIn and 60,000 followers (about 30,000 women) on Twitter will benefit from these lessons,” she said.
“As a board member of one of Nigeria’s most successful venture capital funds, I often share lessons with the women in our ecosystem and all our portfolio companies. This will have a trickle-down effect to other women, especially those in technology.
“I often record webinars for some of the Nigerian entrepreneurs, which will showcase some of the lessons and initiatives learnt over the years, and I share lessons on my weekly television show, which focuses on business/finance and entrepreneurship.”
The company offers corporate social responsibility initiatives, including providing free nursing training to a number of Nigerian women, and providing grants and cash prizes to promising medical students.
Brown said that as Flying Doctors Nigeria scales globally it will be recruiting new people.
“Currently, we are working on partnerships with multiple airlines to enable the transport of patients globally from areas with a lesser level of care to more specialist centres,” she said. “This will improve our innovative emergency transport unit to a global standard, making healthcare access available to all.
“My job allows me to combine my passion for business with saving lives. Now my ambition is to build a successful air ambulance service right across Africa.”

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