Neurosurgeons are known as skilled operators. But straddling surgeries across two continents? That’s a different skill entirely.
Dr. Olawale Sulaiman, 49, is a professor of neurosurgery and spinal surgery and chairman for the neurosurgery department and back and spine center at the Ochsner Neuroscience Institute in New Orleans. He lives in Louisiana, but splits his time between the US and Nigeria, spending up to 12 days each month providing healthcare in the country of his birth — sometimes for free.
Born in Lagos Island, Lagos, Sulaiman says his motivation comes from growing up in a relatively poor region.
“I am one of 10 children born into a polygamous family. My siblings and I shared one room where we often found ourselves sleeping on a mat on the floor,” he told CNN.
His parents could not afford his university tuition, but Sulaiman said at the age of 19, he received a scholarship to study medicine in Bulgaria through the Bureau for External Aid, a Nigerian government program targeted at improving the quality of life for Nigeria’s most vulnerable communities.
Sulaiman said the scholarship opened many doors and, in turn, he feels responsible to give back through healthcare. “Africans who have had the privilege of getting outstanding training and education abroad must mobilize their network of influence to transform our continent,” he said.
According to a report by the Global Health Workforce Alliance, Nigeria’s healthcare system does not have enough personnel to effectively deliver essential health services to the country’s large population.
Sulaiman says he wants to use his knowledge to improve the healthcare system. “As I often do, I consulted with my loving and devoted wife for advice. We both decided that giving back was the only option for both of us, and for our family. We have never looked back,” he added.
Starting a health company
In 2010, Sulaiman established RNZ Global, a healthcare development company with his wife, Patricia. The company provides medical services including neuro and spinal surgery, and offers health courses like first aid CPR in Nigeria and the US.
Noting a shortfall in physician-scientists (doctors with a combined degree in medicine and a PhD) like himself, Sulaiman decided it was important to extend his expertise to Nigeria too.
“I would use my vacation times for the medical missions, which were also planned with education and training sessions. We donated a lot of medications, equipment and hands-on training on surgical techniques,” he said.
Sulaiman said he negotiated a 25% pay cut with his American employer in exchange for longer holidays to Nigeria to pursue his passion. RNZ Global has treated more than 500 patients and provided preventative medicine to up to 5,000 people in the US and Nigeria.
Dr. Yusuf Salman, a neurosurgeon based in Abuja, Nigeria has known Sulaiman since 2006. In 2013, through a partnership with MPAC, a faith-related organization, both doctors worked together to provide free spinal surgeries to underprivileged Nigerians in Kwara, north-central Nigeria.
“(Sulaiman) came to Nigeria with implants and equipment from the US so that we could operate for free on people with spine-related problems. He was the lead surgeon and I and a couple of others assisted him at the time. We did about 10 surgeries,” Salman said.
“Over the years, I have learned a lot about minimally invasive spine surgery just from working closely with him. It is a complex procedure and we don’t have a lot of experts on it over here,” he added.
One of his former patients Philomena Arah described his surgeries as “life-changing.” Arah met Sulaiman for the first time in Lagos in 2018 through a friend. Before meeting him, she had spent more than 15 years trying to find a permanent solution to her frequent excruciating back pain.
“Walking was unbearable, I couldn’t even stand straight. I was not happy. The pain stopped me from socializing, from participating in many things. I could not even exercise the way I wanted,” Arah told CNN.
She would later find out from Sulaiman and his team that she needed a laminectomy, a surgical procedure where part or all of a vertebral bone is removed to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. According to Arah, the surgery in Nigeria cost considerably less than if she had traveled to the US for the procedure.
RNZ Global also has a not-for-profit arm called RNZ foundation. The foundation, registered in 2019, focuses on managing patients with neurological diseases for free.
“We offer free services and surgery for those that are less privileged and cannot afford the cost,” said Blessing Holison, patient care coordinator for RNZ Global.
Sulaiman hopes to establish at least four neuroscience centers in Nigeria in the coming years.
“I believe that happiness doesn’t come from what you get, rather, it comes from what you give,” he said. “There is always room to give; you don’t need to be a millionaire to give.”