Dr. Eric Edrah is the team lead of the Health Division of Greg Ikaba Ngaji Foundation for Health and Education. In this interview with DAVID ODEY, TNN correspondent in Calabar, he bares his mind on the activities of the foundation in terms of health and how it is positively impacting the lives of the less privileged in the society
What area do you specialize in?
I am a specialist in community medicine.
How long have you been working with this foundation?
I have been working with the foundation officially for the past three months. Unofficially, I have been with the foundation from inception.
What are the major issues you treat or handle in the foundation?
Of course as you know, the foundation is Greg Ikaba Ngaji Foundation for Health and Education. There is the health division and the education division of the foundation. I head the health division of the foundation. And when you talk about health, the mind of course takes you directly to ill health and diseases and all that, which is not health. The World Health Organisation's definition of health looks at health in totality, not just diseases and illnesses alone. Health is a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. It's holistic. When you talk about health, as a community physician, we are more concerned about keeping people healthy, ensuring that people stay healthy, because when people fall sick, the cost of treating the disease and the pain that comes with the disease is usually more than what it takes to keep people healthy. We must also know that many diseases which have no known cure are very preventable. So we usually prefer that people stay healthy. When you are healthy, we will do everything to ensure that you remain healthy. That is preventive medicine. That is what my specialty area is about. We are involved in all forms of prevention. We want people to stay healthy. We don't even want them to fall sick. But when they do fall sick, we also ensure that the illness does not progress, that it doesn't get worse. So, we ought to be able to intervene early to prevent the illness from getting worse. There are different levels of prevention categorized as primordial, primary, secondary and tertiary levels of prevention. Primordial is that you don't even want the risk factors of that disease to be introduced into a particular environment in the first place. Primary prevention is you have the risk factors already in an environment but you do not want the risk factors to interact to bring about disease in a particular person or a particular group of people. The interesting thing about community medicine is that we are not looking at just the individual. We are looking at a population, we are looking at a group of people, the health of a group of people, not the health of an individual who has to come to the hospital. For us, medicine is practiced outside the hospital domain. We do not wait for people to fall sick and then come to the hospital to meet us. We go out there to carry out interventions that will ensure that the people stay healthy. Secondary prevention has to do with intervening early when people fall sick to ensure that they don't progress. And tertiary prevention is when they have progressed after falling sick and they did not present themselves early. They have progressed, complications have developed and then you as the physician are saying that even with these complications that have developed, what can we do to restore function and rehabilitate these individuals? These are the different levels of prevention and the community physician is interested in all of these levels. For the Foundation, that is all that we do, beginning from primordial prevention, primary, to secondary and then to tertiary. So, we are not all about diseases and illnesses. We are interested in policies aimed at ensuring that primordial prevention is in place. We are also interested in programmes geared towards health education and issues of specific protection of people. When people fall sick and we are aware, we step in immediately to see how diagnosis can be carried out, to give them treatment, you know. And even when the illness has progressed in some people, you don't say the disease has progressed so we leave them to die. No. We still come to the rescue and say, what can we do to prolong life, to ensure that this person does not pass on prematurely.
So, what are the common ailments the foundation treats for those who have already come down with certain diseases or ailments?
We are interested in everything.
I mean from experience, the people who come to you, what are the ailments they come with?
Everybody comes to the foundation. The foundation is not like a hospital where we sit down and treat illnesses. We don't do that except maybe in situations when we go for outreaches. If there are comprehensive medical outreaches, you don't select what you are going to attend to, because during medical outreach, you have everybody coming. We usually have doctors from all fields of medicine. That is why it is called comprehensive. It is all of medicine, doctors are all there. When I say all of medicine, I mean areas we have issues commonly and we try to get all the specialists on ground. We are talking about paediatrics, we are talking about obstetrics and gynaecology, we are talking about internal medicine specialists, surgery, we are talking about community physicians. They are all on ground to ensure that if a case of malaria comes, a case of diarrhoea whether it's an adult or children, there are people to handle them. If you have a case of pneumonia, it can be handled. We have cases that require surgical intervention. Surgeries are usually done in those outreach settings. In an outreach setting, we do everything. Outside of the outreach setting too, of course, our work is not limited to outreaches to communities. As a foundation, we have a foundation office where we are now. And we have cases coming, people who are ill coming with all manner of cases. We are not restricted to any need. We have people with surgical need coming to us, people with tumours, both benign and malignant coming to us. We have people with medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension coming. Most of the time, they are coming because they have been receiving treatment and require financial assistance from the foundation to continue. They come to us to say can you help us so that we can continue our treatment, so that we can continue our follow up in the hospital? Like I said, in the foundation office, we don't really treat but rather do more of linkages with partners, with appropriate financial support given to enable these people access medical care.
So you only do counseling?
As you can see, the office is not set up as a clinic so we offer professional advice and do appropriate linkages.
What do you do when people come with medical complaints?
We see them. And because of the medical expertise, we are able to know their ailments and we send them to places where they can get appropriate help. Before some of them come here, they are already on treatment elsewhere like I said before. They are coming most of the time for financial assistance. But you need a professional to be able to determine genuine cases. You know, in a foundation like this, you hear a whole lot of stories. People can even come and claim to be sick when they are not truly ill. It is in the place of those of us who are professionals to be able to say, is this person truly ill or does this person truly need the help he or she is claiming he or she needs? Basically, for now that is what we do. We link them up appropriately to the different experts that can take care of them.
In doing this, do you have partnerships?
Yes we do. There are private firms in town that we partner with. We have specialists in different fields that we also partner with. They have their own arrangements outside.
So you offset the bills after the patients have been treated?
Yes. We offset the bills after they have been treated. That is our real concern. That is what we concern ourselves with when we are not in outreach settings where we get involved ourselves with other specialists that come around to help. In the foundation office when this kind of thing comes, what we try to do is linkage to appropriate places, to appropriate specialist and then ensure that the bills are sorted out. We are not set up here to provide services in terms of full consultations for now.
Are you looking forward to doing that?
Yes. In the future, why not? It is meant to be progressive. Basically what we do now like I said before is linkages based on the knowledge of the conditions of the people that come around. We even link people to have surgeries done for them in appropriate centres. We had one recently. It was a case of lymphoma, a giant lymphoma that a man had carried for years because he did not have money to take care of it. The founder, Chief Jude Ngaji was home. The man is a driver who drove a politician to the founder's house. That was his day. As he recounted after the surgery, he said he was even reluctant to enter the founder's house because the lump was like a thing of shame and he had to carry it for so long and it became really big. Lymphoma is a benign tumour and it has the capacity to grow if not removed early. So this one became really very big and it was like a load on the back. That day, according to the story he told after the surgery, he wasn't even ready to go out of the car because people will just be asking what is this man carrying on his back. But he summoned courage to go and mix up with other people in the compound. And that was how a man saw him and said, 'what is on this man's back?' Knowing who the founder is, the man drew the attention of the founder and said 'Chief, see the kind of thing this man is carrying on his back'. And right there in the founder's compound, he looked at it and gave directives that the man should be attended to and appropriate help be given to him. That was his day and that was how he was brought to Calabar. And through collaboration with a private clinic, we had surgery done for him. Today, when you look at him, that whole thing that was like a burden is gone and in his own words, 'you people have taken away my shame'. It was like a thing of shame as children will see him and be laughing, while adults will see him and be gossiping. Today he is very happy. That is just one of the cases which happened recently. Apart from that, if you go to the teaching hospital, there are people who are on admission. Of course there is a particular woman on admission who the founder also saw while he was home and immediately asked the woman to be brought down to Calabar. She had congestive cardiac failure. If she had not been brought, I sincerely doubt if she would have been alive by now. She is still on admission for more than one month now. All of the bills, including the feeding, her own feeding, including the feeding of the person staying with her is being taken care of by the foundation. The same thing applied to the man. That is the way we carry on. There is also a case of a jaw tumour we are taking care of in Abuja. Shortly, she is supposed to be in the National Hospital, Abuja for surgery. She is a young girl, a 14 year-old who stays with the elder sister in Abuja and she has this jaw tumour. It's taken so long and it's becoming really advanced and it has affected her dentition and when the dentition is affected, one of the things it does immediately is that it affects feeding. So feeding is an issue to an extent because it has been allowed for so long. The delay in this case is still tied to the financial situation of the family. One Solomon Ogar, a blogger brought her to the attention of the public and the Foundation got interested as a Foundation. As we speak now, arrangements are being made for the first stage of the surgery. The surgery is supposed to be in three stages and the first stage of the surgery will be taken care of completely by the Foundation. Six hundred thousand naira (N600,000) has been given out by the foundation already for this purpose. This is by no means final knowing the disposition of the Founder very well.
Is there a spending limit for surgery and other ailments?
There is no limit. It is dependent on the case at hand. The founder has the kind of heart that is uncommon. I personally tell people that I have never seen anybody like him since I was born. I truly have not seen anybody with the kind of heart he has. He has a heart of compassion and he goes out of his way to get things done, not out of abundance but of necessity because I have come to understand his philosophy. He doesn't believe that you have to fatten your bank account to be seen as a rich man. He believes that putting smiles on the faces of people is what makes you truly rich. So he greatly inconveniences himself to meet needs of as many as come around to access help. And he does according to the need that is on ground. So there is no funding limit. Even for the young girl I have just told you about, this is the first stage of the surgery. But if there is need for us to go into the second stage and it becomes necessary to get to the final stage, as long as the funds are there, he is ready for us for us to continue to render help. At the end of the day, he tells you that alleviating the suffering of people is what gives him joy.
How many people have benefited from the health programme?
They are countless. This is something that has been on-going over time. We had a community eye programme in Yala and over 3,000 people had eye checks and glasses given to them. And some of them were moved down to Calabar for further treatment for eye surgery and all that. So thousands of people have had interventions at different times. The eye programme alone took care of thousands. Plans are also underway for the foundation to have a vision centre in Ogoja. Modalities are already being put in place to ensure that the project sees the light of day. And of course as it is true with him, whatever he sets his heart to do, he never goes back on it. So in the next few months, the vision centre will be opened for our people. If anything is located in Ogoja, of course you know it is not only the people of Ogoja that will benefit from it. It is going to serve the people from Yala, Bekwara, Obudu and Obanliku, of northern Cross River. Even people from Ikom and Boki axis who are interested in accessing such services, nothing stops them from taking advantage of that. It is going to be a comprehensive eye centre that will take care of eye checks, cases that require eye glasses and eye surgeries. So that people will not have to be moved from Ogoja to Calabar because they want to have surgery for cataract or surgery for glaucoma or to have treatment for any of these conditions. They should be able to access those services right from Ogoja without being moved to Calabar. The vision center is uppermost in his heart considering the incidence and the prevalence of eye conditions in that part of the state.
In terms of funding, where does the money come for all these activities?
For now it's passion driven. We are not accessing funds from any external source. Most of the money that comes, comes from what he is able to do, what he is able to provide as a Founder.
So, there is no funding from any foreign donor agency?
No. There is usually a starting point, borne out of passion. Before you call for help, or before you get noticed, you must begin to do something. For us in this Foundation and for the founder, he is not doing what he is doing so that later he will be able to access funds from other people. He is doing what he is doing as God enables him. Of course, he is believing that God will continue to provide for him the resources to continue to do what he is doing. But, that is not also saying that, if as he keeps doing good, if help comes from other sources he will not turn it down. There is no how you will be doing good and it will be hidden. I know that it will definitely get to a point where as the good continues, and as the news of the good continues to spread, people and organizations will get interested also. As human beings, we have the nature of God. People ordinarily would want to identify with good anywhere people see good happening. I believe it will get to a point where people within the country and even international donor agencies will say these things they are doing 'we are impressed by what you are doing and we would like to possibly get involved'. But I tell you the truth, I know him very well, I know his mindset. That is not the motive.
What are the challenges the foundation is facing?
Well, the challenges with this kind of foundation is that people question your motive and people possibly would want to take advantage. Beginning from motives, people will say 'ah he is doing that because of this and that.' A man who is well intentioned, a man who is into charity for so long, the moment he has it now as a foundation, and reaching out to more people, people will now begin to talk.
Do you have such cases?
Yes, generally. People question the motive. Even the things you do as an individual, people question the motive behind those things.
Is the founder discouraged by such things?
He can't be discouraged. When Jesus Christ was on earth, even his own motive was questioned. Jesus is God. The motive of God was questioned, how much less the motive of a man. For a man who has his depth of understanding cannot be discouraged because he knows why he is doing what he is doing. And then, of course people want to take advantage. When you have a setting like this, it is supposed to be for people who are truly in need, people who cannot afford. But you have situations where people say 'this thing is there, whether I have or not let me go and take advantage'. You have people who don't have any business coming for any educational help based on their background or coming for assistance in terms of health based on their background, coming to tell lies to be able to access funds. When I interact with some people as a doctor, the claims of health challenges are not really true. Based on our training, you can interact with somebody and you just know that whatever he or she is saying doesn't add up.
Where do you see the foundation in the next five years?
In the next five years, based on what we are doing now, I see a world class institution that will be touching lives in tremendous ways. Touching lives across the state. Of course, a foundation is not restricted to the state where it is located. That is just the primary catchment area but it goes beyond the catchment area. So I see this foundation touching lives of Cross Riverians, north, central, south. I see this foundation touching lives across the states of this country. I see this foundation launching out across the borders of this nation, in places where these needs abound. Based on the passion of the founder, I know that there is no stopping us. We will definitely go places, because when the passion is to see the people healthy, when the passion is to see the people educated, even God identifies with that kind of passion. These are two areas of human development that you cannot push aside. Without health, there isn't much any man can do. And then when you decide to give a man education, there is no level of empowerment, there is no amount of money you can give to a man that is more than giving that man education. When you educate a man, you are empowering that man. When you take care of the health of a man, you are also empowering that man. So we are all about empowerment. And that is what God loves. And that is what God desires of us as humans. And of course you know that when God supports your cause, there is no limit to the extent you can go. You will go places naturally and you cannot be stopped because God cannot be stopped.