ANIEKAN EKERE: ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON BY DEFAULT

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In a freak irony, Professor Aniekan Ekere, a famed bone and muscular trauma surgeon who gets important reference from high profile persons like former President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Nyesom Wike, walks with a slight limp, but he does not encourage a pity party. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

Sometime this month, Pauline will wear her wedding gown again; 30 years after she first said ‘I do’ to her husband, Professor Aniekan Ekere.

Formalities to re-enact the nuptial will take place in Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State, a city replete with reminiscences of their marriage. Thirty years ago when they got married in Calabar, it was to Port Harcourt, the famed Garden city that they came for their honeymoon.

Four years after, in 1991, they returned to Port Harcourt and have made it their home since.
Acting out their wedding may not exactly follow the same pattern. Of course, it cannot be. After all, a lot has changed. For instance, Mrs. Ekere who studied English Language at the University of Ilorin is no more a starry-eyed young lady. She has assumed a matronly posture; bringing many spinsters under her wings for mentorship. The couple now have six children-five biological sons and one adopted daughter.

The Ekeres preside over a very large household. Everyone calls them, ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy’. The family started multiplying even when they did not have their own children and has grown astronomically since. The Professor and his wife have never been alone since they returned from their marital holiday, 30 years ago. Their home is always brimming with people. Sometimes, the number of persons rises to 40, but it is never below 20. To accommodate them, Ekere has consistently chosen to live in big houses. Today, he reserves the top floor of the three-storey building which houses the Rehoboth Hospital as his residential quarters. It may be necessary to explain that Ekere’s family include, his children and wife, his extended family, staff of the hospital and members of his church; for he oversees a Pentecostal ministry called Wings of Redemption. To all these people, he is ‘Daddy’.

Operations of the hospital are supposed to be confined to the ground, first and second floors, but it is not unusual to find a patient and staff, ‘straying’ into the family floor and Ekere does not particularly discourage them. He believes in an open door policy that is largely influenced by kindheartedness which is founded on his Christian disposition and fueled by the natural empathy of caring for the sick.

Rehoboth is a busy medical practice. Six medical doctors are on the staff. They are complemented by a string of associates and consultants. A number of VIPs have sought relief for trauma in the hospital. On Page 34 of his memoir, former President Goodluck Jonathan references Rehoboth where he was treated when he was an assistant director at OMPADEC, the forerunner to NDDC. Ekere admitted that Jonathan sent quite a number of patients when he became Governor of Bayelsa State.

Incidentally, the present Governor of Rivers State, Chief Nyesom Wike was Ekere’s patient when he was the Chief of Staff to Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi. The former Senate President, Senator Adolphus Wabara has been examined by Ekere at Rehoboth. He said, “We have had a lot of high profile persons – from the military to politicians, civilians and business men. If all of them were to remember us, I am sure we will be very far from where we are now.”
Port Harcourt has also gifted Ekere a professional reputation that travels far. The 62-bed Rehoboth Specialist Hospital is open for treatment of orthopedic problems, accidents and auto-trauma. On account of his ethical diligence, Ekere is popular around the South-south and beyond.

“I have been in this town since 1991. I am still a consultant in the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital. A lot of patients have passed through my hands. We started this practice in August 1992, over the years, we have gotten a good reputation in Port Harcourt, Rivers State and nearby states in the South-south region. We have even had people from outside the country; from Cameroon and Ghana. We have a lot of foreigners in this city who use our services. I think it is because one has been here for quite some time and we have been a little bit consistent. We have also had reasonable results. As God would have it, we have been able to delve into areas that are not too common in this environment. I think that is why we have had good patronage.”

Ekere was the 77th Inaugural Lecturer of the University of Port Harcourt in 2012. His inaugural lecture was on ‘Bone Mending: Orthodoxy Challenged by Tradition’. He chose this topic to address the alarming incidence of intervention in treatment of bone ailments by native doctors. He believes that since Nigerians are still largely rooted in traditional medicine and that trust can not be wished away overnight, it would be better if traditional bone setters submit themselves to guidance. He said the incident of bone and muscular trauma has reached an epidemic proportion in Nigeria. “There is a big syndrome that is known as Traditional Bone Setters Gangrene in orthodox medicine. It explains the bad state of the leg by the time the patient is brought to us. By the time they come from the native doctor, the legs are already dead. Some of these legs could have been salvaged, if they came to the hospital directly. The treatment that the native doctor administers is to pull, massage and tie. When you have trauma the limb swells. If you tie it and it swells and there is no room to expand with the swelling, you develop what we call a compartment syndrome and when you have a compartment syndrome, the pressure within the compartment gets higher than the blood pressure. Once it is higher than the blood pressure, blood will not enter that area and once you give a critical time of about three hours, maximum six hours, that limb is dead. And there is nothing you can do to bring it back to life.”

Of all the specialties open to him, it is instructive to note why he chose to pay closer attention to the bones and the muscles.

“I became an orthopedic surgeon by default. As a medical student, I wanted to be a Gastro-Intestinal Surgeon. However, I did my residency in Calabar. The problem in Calabar then was motor cycle accident. We had a load of motor cycle accidents. The commonest problem that led to amputation was motor cycle accident. In my simple mind, I thought, if I want to do a research that I could easily get data on, it had to be a prevalent case. That was how I went into orthopedics and trauma. My research was on motor cycle accidents. That was how I became an orthopedic surgeon. But I don’t have any regrets at all. I believe my life is in the hands of God. And He orders my steps.”
It is a freak irony that Ekere, the famed bone and muscular trauma surgeon walks with a slight limp. Perhaps, it is the same Divine Hand that has shaped his career that saved him from what could have been a worse condition. He explained.

“In 1982/83, I was on youth service with the military. I worked in Ogun State, 42 Battalion in Owode-Egbado. I was the only doctor. We used to go to 9 Field Ambulance which was in Ikeja for drugs. This day, we took that very sturdy, masculine army ambulance. I had a seat in front with the driver, but as we were leaving, an army officer who was my friend was going to Lagos. Trying to be nice, I left my seat for him and sat on the metal platform between him and the driver- from Ogun State to Lagos and back. I played football with the soldiers on my return. That night, I could not sleep. I had very bad waist pain. By the time I finished my specialty in 1990, I moved from Calabar to Lagos to work and I decided to screen my lower back, I saw that I already had arthritic changes in my lower back. Six years ago, I had some fellowship in India and I worked in hospital that was run mainly by a neuro-surgeon that did a lot of back surgeries. I was actually going to be exposed to a little bit more on back surgery.

I went with the mind and money that I will do the fellowship and I will get myself operated upon but he said that if I did exercises I will get well. I did not have that operation. I diverted the money to buy equipment. When I came back, it got so bad to the point that if I travel through large airports I will ask for a motorized vehicle to move me around. Two years ago, I had a narrowing of the space in the spinal cord that passes through the vertebrae. I went for a decompression where they had to remove the pressure on the nerve, so they removed part of my bone, but it was done with a microscope and unfortunately they injured one of my nerves. The effect is that on one of legs-from the knee to the ankle, I am numb. If I don’t exercise, I have some discomfort. Apart from all I have said, I got used to walking wrongly. When I am not conscious, I walk wrongly. There are times that I am conscious, I walk better.”

Touching as this story may sound, you will be quickly stopped on your track if you take this as cue to sympathise with him.

“I don’t pity myself,” he shrugged.
For Ekere who is always looking for the good in every situation, the best thing that has resulted from his personal medical condition is that it allows him to appreciate what people go through. If a patient has a lower back problem and complains of pain, he can remember the amount of pain he endures. He knows what he needs to do. He can advise from personal experience.

Ekere argued that several factors including level of development, financial capability, infrastructural advancement, civilization and government intervention in health care, have limited the ability of Nigerian bone surgeons to acquire the capacity to replace all joints like their counterparts elsewhere in the world. The major joints that Nigerian surgeons are able to handle are hips and knees. “We are able to bridge the gap, mainly for people who cannot afford to travel abroad and for some who have the confidence that we are able to do it.”

If he had his way, the current situation that bans orthodox doctors from advertising but allows alternative medical practitioners that privilege should be discontinued. “You don’t allow somebody to tell you that there is a tablet that can cure infertility, cure infection, kill pain, remove leprosy and correct the eye. That is almost in the realm of a miracle. They allow these people to advertise in the media and because of the gullibility, level of development and civilization and education, you will be surprised at what people believe. In the university, we had a guy who worked with us in the teaching hospital. He was a theatre attendant, after some time he left the hospital and opened a clinic and lecturers in the university patronized his clinic. That is because the guy had a mechanism of advertising whatever he was doing. What I think might help people is that if you want native doctors to advertise their practices, allow doctors to advertise as well. That way, people may access correct information. We might not have all the people go to the traditional people but by reason of the advert, some of them will come to the orthodox practice and they might be saved.”

Initially, Ekere had a concern about who will inherit his thriving medical practice. That apprehension has been addressed. His first son who studied Business Administration and International Relations manages Rehoboth. His second son is an IT expert. However, his third and fourth sons are medical doctors, while the fifth son is a Mechanical Engineer. His adopted daughter is an Accountant. However, in the larger Ekere family, there are more doctors.