Dr. Olawale Sulaiman, 41, is a professor of neurosurgery and spinal surgery and chairman for the neurosurgery department and back and spine centre at the Ochsner Neuroscience Institute in New Orleans. He lives in Louisiana, but splits his time between the US and Nigeria, spending up to 12 days each month providing healthcare in the country of his birth — sometimes for free.
Born in Lagos Island, Lagos, Sulaiman says his motivation comes from growing up in a relatively poor region.
“I am one of 10 children born into a polygamous family. My siblings and I shared one room where we often found ourselves sleeping on a mat on the floor,” he told CNN.
His parents could not afford his university tuition, but Sulaiman said at the age of 19, he received a scholarship to study medicine in Bulgaria through the Bureau for External Aid, a Nigerian government programme targeted at improving the quality of life for Nigeria’s most vulnerable communities.
Sulaiman said the scholarship opened many doors and, in turn, he feels responsible to give back through healthcare. “Africans who have had the privilege of getting outstanding training and education abroad must mobilise their network of influence to transform our continent,” he said.
According to a report by the Global Health Workforce Alliance, Nigeria’s healthcare system does not have enough personnel to effectively deliver essential health services to the country’s large population.
Sulaiman says he wants to use his knowledge to improve the healthcare system. “As I often do, I consulted with my loving and devoted wife for advice. We both decided that giving back was the only option for both of us, and for our family. We have never looked back,” he added.
In 2010, Sulaiman established RNZ Global, a healthcare development company with his wife, Patricia. The company provides medical services including neuro and spinal surgery, and offers health courses like first aid CPR in Nigeria and the US.
Noting a shortfall in physician-scientists (doctors with a combined degree in medicine and a PhD) like himself, Sulaiman decided it was important to extend his expertise to Nigeria too.
“I would use my vacation times for the medical missions, which were also planned with education and training sessions. We donated a lot of medications, equipment and hands-on training on surgical techniques,” he said.
Sulaiman said he negotiated a 25% pay cut with his American employer in exchange for longer holidays to Nigeria to pursue his passion. RNZ Global has treated more than 500 patients and provided preventative medicine to up to 5,000 people in the US and Nigeria.
Dr. Yusuf Salman, a neurosurgeon based in Abuja, Nigeria has known Sulaiman since 2006. In 2013, through a partnership with MPAC, a faith-related organisation, both doctors worked together to provide free spinal surgeries to underprivileged Nigerians in Kwara, north-central Nigeria.
“Sulaiman came to Nigeria with implants and equipment from the US so that we could operate for free on people with spine-related problems. He was the lead surgeon and I and a couple of others assisted him at the time. We did about 10 surgeries,” Salman said.
“Over the years, I have learned a lot about minimally invasive spine surgery just from working closely with him. It is a complex procedure and we don’t have a lot of experts on it over here,” he added.