I would like you to meet my grandfather, Dr. Elijah Emezie. He was a loved physician and Senator in Nigeria. He started a hospital and rural practice for his relatively poor community, and worked there as Chief Medical Director at St. Luke’s Hospital in Orlu, Imo State.
In 1989, my grandfather gave a valedictory address to the graduating class of 1989 from the College of Medicine at the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus. Earlier this year, my mother shared the printout of his speech with me to read. His words feel like they were written yesterday. Many of my grandfather’s sentiments still resonate with healthcare’s current state of affairs around the world. His words will be the subject of this piece—an homage and a reflection on the insight we can gain when we turn ourselves towards the lessons left by our ancestors.
My maternal great-grandfather was a renowned herbalist and so was my maternal grand-father, My mother was “Nwanyiagwu” the woman that carried the big herbal bag, a close associate. By marriage to my father, the art was passed on to both my mother and father. My father combined his trading with practice of Herbalism. I had the opportunity to have stayed with my maternal grand-father and to have learnt by watching the art of traditional healing. By unknown selective force, I was the only child who was encouraged quite early to practice the art. We lived at Umunze in Orumba L.G.A., Anambra State. At the back of our house was a big “Ngwu” tree belonging to the cinchona group.
From the bark of this tree I was taught how to extract by cooking and sieving in a liquid that guaranteed in those days a complete cure to the febrile conditions in children. I prepared the drug in the evening and in the morning before going to school, I ran my Paediatric clinic sometimes of about 5-10 patients. My bill was within reach of all, equivalent of 5 kobo in cowries, six yams and if cured, a fowl. The first two were readily paid but many could not give me a fowl but left me with immense gratitude and blessings that could not be quantified in money. I was called “small dokita”Dr. Elijah Emezie cc Ms Nwosu
The first thing I noticed about this section of my grandfather’s introduction was the presence of role models in his life. The same way that my grandfather—alongside my parents, aunts, and uncles—showed me my own potential was how he realized his own. Some would say healing runs through generations of my family—I say yes, however, it runs through generations of many Nigerian families and families everywhere. In every generation, there are gifts and blessings that run down to the next, should we choose to accept them.
Not every Black child gets to see Black people in the role of physician within their own lives. Not every child gets to have a grandparent as a role model. Role models are people who tell us, not always in words but just by their existence, that we can do something. I have always known that being a physician was, at the very least, an option for me. I am realizing now that this is a privilege that I had as a child. I am elated to lift up the role models I have had in my life and to share their wisdom.
My grandfather shared the traditional healing practices of our ancestors with so much enthusiasm and faith, while still moving to embrace the advances of the increasingly modern medicine the graduates would be practicing:
In 1958 as a clinical student at Ibadan, there was an epidemic of smallpox. The infectious disease hospitals were filled to capacity and the mortality and morbidity was unprecedented. Today, smallpox has been eradicated in the face of the earth. As a clinical student, our wards were filled with tetanus patients, miserable patients folded and arched on themselves in mortal pains with jaws firmly locked. Many died. Today, tetanus is quite rare and its effects so attenuated that many survive. […] One wonders why this profession with such spectacular achievements has not been accepted by our people. Unfortunately, in this garden where the Lord has planted corn, the enemies are planting tares. One hears nowadays of alternatives. I affirm today before you that there is but only one medicine and it has no alternatives.Dr. Elijah Emezie cc Ms Nwosu
The awe that should be had for modern medicine is increasingly dwindling in certain groups. They have specific agendas and mentalities. In the midst of a pandemic that has killed almost 2 million people at the time of me writing this, we have groups spreading dissent over one of science’s greatest achievements: the vaccine. The vaccine is the same solution that eradicated both smallpox and tetanus as my grandfather spoke of in his speech. I have no doubt that if he were alive and well on Earth today, he would shake his head at people who are blissfully unaware of how desperate healthcare looked, prior to vaccine campaigns.
The typical sign in the village of a child stretched out in paroxysm of long drawn cough ending up in a whoop and vomiting otherwise known as whooping-cough and afflicting almost all of the children in the village, has virtually disappeared. Today the Goodnews of immunisation against the six deadly diseases – poliomyelitis, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping-cough, tuberculosis and measles, including the Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) is preached to the poor. How happy are those who have no doubt about the profession.Dr. Elijah Emezie cc Ms Nwosu
Vaccine hesitancy is rooted in the privilege we have as a generation that in many parts of the world, has not seen the devastation of diseases we can now prevent. Humanity today forgets the reality our grandparents and their ancestors lived in for generations. The amount of undue suffering and death that people saw spreading in their communities is humbling to read about. The privileges we enjoy today are often belittled by conspiracy theories rather than received with the gratitude each new discovery should be met with.
We should try to make the realization of the health for all if not by the year 2000 at least 3000 possible.Dr. Elijah Emezie cc Ms Nwosu
The underlying message of his words relate back to the title of this piece—hope in medicine—and why both practitioners and patients need to have it. For the practitioner, we can be reminded that healthcare is a vocation, it will be demanding and emotional, but at the core, there should always be a desire to alleviate suffering. Often this gets lost. It gets lost because of the pedestal many people hold doctors and other healthcare providers on. When your ego is fed enough, and when your pay cheque gets big enough, it seems that many forget the humanity behind the work they do.
So let us all be reminded: the realization of health for all is a goal that transcends time and generations. Even if we are not the generation that achieves it, we should at the very least be the generation that truly strived for it. For patients, it is about keeping the faith. The people that work these long hours, through long training and many difficult days, are not wielding medicine as a weapon. You can ask questions of your providers—remembering that they are human and fallible—but their intentions should always be clear: to heal. To heal as my grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and as all the practitioners before them sought to do.