Martins Ifijeh chronicles the life of Irene Olumese, an ex UN envoy, who battled lung disease for years until it was almost ‘time’. But for providence and sheer luck, a stranger donated his only lungs to save her life. She is now championing causes to save other Nigerians, especially those without arms or legs
If astronauts were to describe Irene Olumese during her hey days as a youth, they would call her the sun. She was like the solar system’s star, the one that radiates densities high enough to sustain nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. She was the orbit other planets revolved around.
In 1986, she was a 19-year-old second year student and one of the brightest in the University of Ibadan. All she dreamt of was to remain that sun; the one everyone orbits around. But life happened. It served her lemons, and all the fairytales started to fall apart. Life had served her a chronic respiratory disease and she started finding it difficult to breathe once in a while.
By the time she was done with her first degree and was doing her compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) in Bida, Niger State, her health deteriorated until she moved out of Bida and finished her service at the ministry of health office in Lagos as the challenge was having a toll on her health.
“That was how I managed through the service year and by early 1990, a test was done on me where I realised there were cysts in my lungs. At this point I had started coughing continuously. It was a terrifying stage of my life. I was told what I had was beyond asthma and it was serious,” said Olumese while sharing her story with THISDAY recently.
But despite the emerging chronic health condition and the damage it was causing to her respiratory organ, Olumese’s beauty didn’t deem. Her anatomical body and physic found grace. She was every man’s dream wife.
She didn’t only stand out as the sun, or the star of the solar system. She was also a Deneb. The Deneb is the brightest star in Cygnus and the 19th brightest star in the night sky. Astronauts say it is 100,000 times brighter than the sun. Deneb is for fact the sun’s star. She was the Deneb her then fiancé, Peter Olumese saw and couldn’t let go. By 1992, she got married to him and continued to forge on with life.
The ambitious Olumese didn’t allow the health challenge deter her from fulfilling her life’s dreams. She made lemonades from the lemons life served her. In the heat of managing the lung disease, she acquired a masters and doctorate degrees in nutrition science, had her two lovely sons, Osemudiamen and Ehimenmen, proceeded to work with the University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan, and then worked with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as a nutrition specialist, where she soon became a key face for the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria.
But after suffering this health challenges for over 20 years, amidst the marital and career progresses she had against the tide, it was almost ‘time’ for the lungs to finally fail. She began to lose manpower, strength, and the fear of losing her own life began to set in.
“Doctors told me my lungs were increasingly failing and that the only way I would live past this would be to have them replaced by another person’s own. It was a terrifying moment for me and the family.
“As typical with lung replacement, once a donor gives his or her lungs out, such a person would not live beyond that point. We knew this would be a hard nut to crack, but I of course didn’t have a choice. I hoped on God that we would find someone willing to donate to cure my health challenge,” Olumese said.
The three and a half years wait for a willing and compactible donor was the longest wait of her life. She was seeing life almost ebb out on her. Each passing day was a living hell for the Olumeses. She sought for donors across the globe. Afterall, Nigeria is not an organ donor country, as the society and culture frowns at it. So, she knew she was moving against the tide.
But her desire to live soon paid off as her doctor eventually found a willing and compactible donor. It is one thing to find a donor, it is another thing to ensure the lung is compactible with the patient’s body.
“After my doctor reached me with the good news, I immediately moved to Geneva in Switzerland where the donor was found and the transplant was done,” she said.
While the transplant marked a major victory in her quest to stay alive, it also signaled the beginning of fresh problems as She stayed in coma for more than four weeks. And by then, there was the issue of whether the transplanted organ was 100 per cent compactible with her body or not. It obviously wasn’t, as some part of her antibodies recognised it as a foreign body, and soon reacted.
By the time she was out of bed for the over four weeks post-surgery, there was no more sensation to her legs and arms. That again brewed another trouble; whether to amputate both limbs and arms or watch her live with the complications until she is no longer able to carry it.
“As a result of that, I was in a coma for four weeks. By the time I finally came out of it, I was told that things had really gone bad. There wasn’t enough blood circulation to my hands and legs, and as a result, they would have to amputate my limbs. I mean, after over 20 years of living with this problem to now be told that you have new lungs but have to lose both hands and legs, was quite tough for me.
“Miraculously, my hands recovered, I learnt to write again with my hand but my legs did not recover, they had to be amputated.”
Despite losing her lower limbs following the fitting of new lungs in her body, Olumese remained in a critical condition. For the next 119 days that followed that surgery, she remained confined to the hospital bed, not knowing if she would survive or eventually be consumed by the health crisis. Emotionally and psychologically, her ‘boys’ – Peter, Ose and Ehi – were broken. It was the worst experience they ever could have wished for.
“Apart from spending 119 days in the hospital after the lung transplant, for the seven years that followed, I was constantly on oxygen. I had to remain in Switzerland because there was no way I could be on oxygen for that long in Nigeria and still be alive.
“There were several times during that period when I saw death and thought that it was going to happen. My situation was so bad that I could not leave my bedroom. I was on oxygen 24 hours of the day. For the last three years, I had to be on ventilator for my lungs to breathe.
“My husband had to keep working because my medical bills had to be paid, including the children’s school fees. His work involved a lot of travelling, so the children had to step up to take care of themselves and me.
“But after we did that for a couple of years and saw that it was going to affect their education because they couldn’t concentrate, we had to allow other friends to help us with some house work. That was how we managed during that period.
“Sadly, the situation literally wiped us out financially. It took a heavy toll on us and wiped out our savings. It was a challenging period, especially because we were in Europe where there were so many bills to pay, including medical. We were practically left with nothing by the time God brought me out of that very critical condition,” she said.
By the time Olumese was finally out of it, she had spent at least $30, 000 to procure prosthetics with which she now walks. To her, she has every reason to be grateful for new limbs. She is on her feet because of grace, a statement she repeatedly made. She walked against the tide and is now back on her feet, which influenced her to establish ‘Feet of Grace Foundation’ with which other persons with prosthetic problems are now getting prosthetics so they can walk again and lead normal lives.
Olumese, who is the author of a bestseller, Grace In The Storms’ – a chronicle of her ordeal, has now dedicated her life to giving back to the society, especially in giving hope to amputees. She said the rest of her life will now be dedicated to this cause.
Through her foundation, Feet of Grace, the 52-year-old who has been able to provide artificial limbs to 34 Nigerians in the five years of championing this cause, added that it is a way of appreciating her maker.
She said: “It was in the process of trying to regain my life, a process that took almost a year, that the idea of setting up a foundation came to me. It is a foundation that would benefit all the people who have lost their limbs and are unable to procure prosthetic limbs.
“Mine cost almost $30,000; not everybody in this situation can afford it. So, I felt we could do something to support people. We have been able to provide prosthesis for 34 amputees in Nigeria in the five years that we have run the foundation. But we still need money to be able to provide for others waiting in line.
“Seeing smiles on the faces of those that have benefitted from our intervention gives me new life. It makes every day of the 20 years of pain I experienced worth it. Those 20 years, 119 days in hospital, four weeks in a coma, have taught me never to give up about anything in life. I can never forget that period,” she added.
“Our environment is not disability friendly,” she noted. “Many of us can’t go into buildings. We can’t go to toilets because almost everywhere is not disability friendly. It’s difficult for persons living with disabilities to move around. Government must act fast.
“There is a significant number of disabled persons who can be productive in this country if the environment is sensitive to their situations. They can add value to this country if things are put in place. All that persons living with disabilities are asking for is support, we don’t need pity,” she added quickly.
Asked how she feels today living with the lungs of a total stranger, Olumese said: “Sometimes, I feel like I am harbouring someone else inside my body but because I have become used to it now, I quickly get over that thought. For the fact that I chose to live, fought to live, God gave me the grace to witness His goodness in the land of the living.
“My life is indeed proof that there is no situation He cannot change for good,” she said.
The beautiful fighter has been the sun among her peers and a Deneb to her family even before her ill health. Beyond that, she is more than just a stratum of the planet to the 34 beneficiaries of her free prosthetics. She is the universe to them. God willing, she will mean the world to other amputees still praying for prosthetics.