By Denrele Animasaun
Do good, live in the most positive and joyful way possible every day – Roy T. Bennett
There is a saying that; you must never meet your heroes as they are sure to disappoint you. I am happy to say that there are exceptions to the rule and my hero continues to inspire and aspire me no end. I have read so much about her over the years before I finally set my eyes on her. She is very much in demand and it is on one of these occasions, I found myself sitting very near the rostrum, when she took to the stage and I listened to every single word with delightful veneration. Those who know when in such appurtenant moment, it pays to listen intensively and soak up every golden nugget of advice and experience that the Professor freely offers and bank it in your memory for posterity. You see, when you are in the presence of Professor Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu DBE CBE FRCN FQNI PhD, you can not but be in awe at her indefatigable drive to do-good, level of commitment to her many good causes. She has been an influential change agent in the field of Nursing and health care in the UK.
And yet it is remarkable how she remains accessible and willing to share her wealth of knowledge and experience with so many people, young and old.
Few months ago , I finally summoned up the courage to make contact and asked for an interview. She said, yes!
For those who are not aware of Professor Anionwu. Let me bring you up to speed. Professor Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu DBE FRCN is a British-born nurse, health expert, tutor, lecturer and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at University of West London of Irish and Nigerian descent.
You would have thought Elizabeth Anionwu would be a towering giant judging from her incredible feat of achievements, but do not let her small, delicate statue fool you nor her softly spoken voice or inquisitive nature of wanting to know more about the other person other than herself. Trust me, she is made of steely stuff otherwise, how could she have achieved so much over the years and remain relevant and driven?.
She is a colossal being ,usually dressed in wrapper and top ,complete with gele, she is proud of her heritage and it shows. When she walks into a room, numerous eyes follow her and gasps of surprises and admiration follows her every move. It is amazing to see how many people gather to hear this incredible, a diminutive yet dynamo speak.
Elizabeth was born in 1947, to a Nigerian father and an Irish mother. They met in Cambridge University. This was a time when interracial relationship was frowned upon but also a time in Britain, when there was discrimination against blacks and the Irish people in almost equal measures. These were the days of “No blacks,No Irish ,No dogs” But love ,they say, love always finds a way.
Nonetheless, her mother’s family being catholic, were shocked that she was expecting out wedlock . In those days, it was a shame and a scandal to be an unmarried mother, but Elizabeth’s mother made the brave decision to keep her baby daughter, despite the stigma of having a child out of wedlock. Having an illegitimate child in those days, meant isolation and a taboo that affects every members of the family.
The plan for Elizabeth’s parents initially was to bring up the child as their own. That was scuppered when Elizabeth’s mother told them that child would be mixed race. It was obvious there would be questions and it would be difficult to explain why both parents are white, and their child came out brown.
As a result Elizabeth was then brought up in the care of Catholic nuns until she was reunited with her mother’s side of the family at the age of nine. Later on in life;she was able to reconnect with her father and Nigerian side of the family.
She spoke about how she was inspired by the kindness of one if the nuns treating her eczema, that made her want be a nurse. Crucially, Elizabeth’s childhood experiences and triumphs over adversity inspired her commitment and drive to champion the needs of those who are disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Her childhood was her training ground to eventually becoming a leader of health and social champion on fighting for social justice, better deal for nursing colleagues, raising awareness on social issues affecting disadvantaged families or groups.
She was an early champion of better care and treatment for those affected by Sickle Cell Disease in the UK.
Professor Anionwu’s career has also seen her work as a senior lecturer at the Institute of Child Health at the University College London, before being appointed Dean of the school of Adult Nursing Studies and a Professor of Nursing at University of West London.
She is a high-profile nurse who has dedicated her nursing career to improve the lives of patients in her role as a former nurse and health visitor.
Professor Anionwu also ran the first UK nurse-led sickle cell and thalassaemia counselling service. The service celebrated its 40th this year.
Elizabeth put a substantial amount of her life into her work as a nurse, health visitor and tutor working with black and minority ethnic communities in London. She said; ‘People from diverse cultures are not always valued and still sometimes just seen as problems,’
In 1979, she helped to establish in Brent the first nurse-led UK Sickle & Thalassaemia Screening and Counselling Centre. In 1988 she was awarded a PhD from the Institute of Education, University College London (UCL). From 1990-1997 she worked at the Institute of Child Health, UCL as a Lecturer then Senior Lecturer in Community Genetic Counselling.