Call her strong-willed, no-nonsense, courageous and fearless, you will not be wrong. Yet, underneath that tough exterior is a caring, kind-hearted and loving woman who has been able to, like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, dine with kings having washed her hands very well. Dr Abimbola Ayodeji Abolarinwa knows her onions and so has proved her mettle in a male-dominated medical specialty. In this chat, Abolarinwa tells her story, how she delved into not just surgery but urology, considered as a male-dominated field.
BY EBELE ORAKPO
I started my primary education at Air Force Primary School, Kaduna. My father was an officer in the Air Force, a medical doctor. I went to Air Force Girls Military School, Jos for my secondary education and then got admission into the University of Ibadan (UI) to study physiology though I wanted to study medicine. However, in my second year, I was able to change to medicine. That was how I started my medical career in 2004.
I did my internship at Eko Hospital and Nigerian Military Hospital both in Ikeja. I did my NYSC at 44 Nigerian Army Reference Hospital, Kaduna. I returned to Lagos thereafter and worked with the Baptist Medical Centre, Obanikoro, a branch of Baptist Medical Centre, Ogbomosho. I wrote my primary in surgery; I always wanted to be a surgeon. In January 2009, I was employed by the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) for my residency training in surgery.
Why did you choose surgery considered a male-dominated field?
Like I said, my father is a surgeon. He was among the very first set of medical students graduated by ABU, Zaria in the 70s. He then trained in the UK and became a general surgeon. Throughout my days in primary school, I grew up seeing my father in the theatre. We would close from school and walk down to his office to see him in the theatre. So these things were not strange to me so I already had that impression in my young mind that being a doctor and a surgeon was not something too abstract. As I grew, I fell in love with biological sciences and I always had the desire to be a doctor. While in medical school, I found out that surgery was the most interesting of all my rotations. It was very practical; the solutions were very clear. I felt it was something that was doable and I was not afraid of blood because this is what I have been seeing as a child. So I felt that surgery would be the best option for me.
“I was fortunate I passed my primary exam though I was heavily pregnant then for my second child. I got a job as a resident doctor in surgery, so everything worked out well for me – what I wanted was what I got after all the efforts I put into it.
As the first female urologist in Nigeria, how do you feel working in a male-dominated field?
“The truth is that surgery, in general, is actually more of a male dominated specialty in medicine because it is not too family-friendly. A lot of time and efforts are involved; you practically have to abandon your home. Even obstetrics/gynecology was male-dominated until recently when women started gaining entry.
“Initially, I had wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon because I found it fascinating that a bone is broken and you straighten it, a bone is shorter and you elongate it. It is so practical; just like pure physics. But when I started my residency training and going round the specialties, now with maturity and more sense of judgment, I did my urology rotation and I was very happy. It suddenly occurred to me that urology is very practical, it cuts across being a surgeon and a physician at the same time and there was a need for the specialty. That was why I chose urology. All the while, I never thought it as being male-dominated; it never occurred to me that there was no female before me in training. I just wanted it because I loved it. I found a new interest in it and lost interest in orthopaedics. I just found myself in it and that was when I realised that I actually got trapped in what was a male-dominated specialty.”
How do you juggle work and family?
I want to say that God gives us families that are like our angels on earth. I have a very supportive family. My children were very young when I started the programme. I was still breastfeeding my second child. So many times, they had to bring him to the hospital to breastfeed and do homework when they started school. There were times that for two weeks at a stretch, I will not go home. Even when armed robbers came to rob in the hospital, I would be there in the call room, they never seemed to come to the call room. My family would send food sometimes to me, keep my children, get them ready for school and if they really need to see me, they bring them to the hospital. You can’t be a success in isolation, there are people that are part of your success story.
“My father paid for every course and update course that was required by training even though I was working and an adult. I still tax him a lot like a typical daughter. He did it willingly because he had gone through this path of surgical training. My mom was always with my children, she is a lawyer but she created time for them. I have a very wonderful house-help who has become like a sister to me. She has been with me from a week before I gave birth to my first child and she is still with me today. Now, if you don’t have this type of structure on ground, it will be very difficult for you to do urology residency training so I won’t say I was particularly a genius juggling residency and family, no, my family juggled family for me so I could focus on my work. Even at work, I had a lot of people that made sure things went smoothly for me so that I didn’t have a case where I was carrying frustration from work back home. I was able to keep work at work and home at home. I took a lot of work home but made sure I maximised the little time I had with my children so while everybody slept, at 2 or 3am, I start doing the rest of the hospital work because if I did it when they were awake, it means I will not have time for them. Those were some of the sacrifices I had to make. Sleep became so strange to me. I wondered how I could actually manage 48 or 72 hours with only six hours of sleep but I did and I got through it so I think in summary, it is about the type of help I had.
Advice to women:
If a woman wants to go into surgery, she needs to calculate well. The Bible talks about whoever wants to build a house should count the cost. You need to know the structure you have on ground.”