TWO LUNG SURGERIES, A LUNG TRANSPLANT AND DOUBLE LEG AMPUTATION LATER
An Interview With The Fabulous Dr. Irene Olumese, Founder of The Feet of Grace Foundation
My name is Dr. Irene Olumese, wife of Dr. Peter Olumese and mother of Peter and David. I am a Christian, I believe in God, I love Him passionately, and it is nothing compared to the way He loves me! I worked with United Nations Children’s Funds (UNICEF) for 15 years in three countries; Nigeria, Ghana, and Egypt. I love to read and sing – I call myself a one-woman bathroom choir.
I got married in 1992 and was expecting a baby and in January 1993, but I lost my baby at 32 weeks. This stillbirth was traumatic, but the word of God comforted me. 2 weeks later, I got appointed into UNICEF, and then I went for training with officers in Kaduna, Nigeria; it was Easter 1993. At the training, I started coughing. I remember vividly that we were in the training hall on Good Friday, and this cough just went on and on. I came back to Lagos and treated it, but it just wouldn’t go.
After a couple of months of using one antibiotic after the other without any improvement, my doctors wanted a full work up, and the X-ray showed a shadow in my chest. My doctors began to investigate further and realized that I needed to have surgery. In June 1993, I had a cardiothoracic surgery to remove a cyst the size of my fist, the doctors said. So when that came out, we felt that was the end of the cough. No, the cough didn’t stop, it continued, and it got worse. I had my first son in 1994; then I saw there were other symptoms that were coming up. I was having allergies of unknown origin; my eyelids just dropped, my pupils fully diluted and the doctors said this looked like a myasthenic syndrome – a degenerative disease of the neuromuscular junction and it causes a weakling of the muscles. My facial muscles were weak; my eyes were drooping and all that. However, no matter what the doctors said, as soon as we stepped out of the doctor’s office, my husband would ask “who’s report do you believe?” and I would answer “I believe in the report of the Lord’. We just used the scripture to counter everything said. In the course of these events, I had my second child in 1997 while I was working to finish my doctorate.
By 1998, I was working as a full-time officer in UNICEF, I was nursing a child, and working on Ph.D. which I finished that year. One day in October, I had a complete relapse again. While washing my baby, my hands just went flaccid; and my baby just dropped into the bowl of water, my chest became heavy. This was already five years of non – stop coughing. It was the kind of coughing where you cough so hard that your bladder threatens to open up. The cough was so bad that I ended up in the intensive care unit that month. That was when the doctors concluded that the diagnosis was bronchiectasis. This is a disease in which the walls of the airways become damaged resulting in accumulation of secretions in the lungs and recurrent chest infection. When they told me I said no, I wasn’t ready to accept that.
I went to the US for a second opinion, but the doctors there also confirmed exactly what my doctors in Nigeria said and even added more. This is because the respiratory disease is now combined with the myasthenia, a degenerative disease,was progressively debilitating. They said within 5 – 10 years I would be wheelchair-bound because the disease just leaves every muscle so weak that the individual is not able to do things by themselves. I refused to accept that prognosis. So I started the medications, and the medication was pretty expensive. While worrying and complaining, a dear sister of mine said to me, ‘why don’t you thank God that you have a job that can pay for the drugs and medical insurance?’. So that was how we were able to manage the problem. Shortly after I returned to Nigeria, I had to move from Ibadan to Lagos to work while still dealing with the problem.
In 2002, I got posted to Tamale, Ghana but had to be in Accra once a month. Hence, I did a lot of traveling back and forth; it was pretty hectic and stressful. The weather was also not kind to me, but I was able to manage it for two years until one day when both of my lungs collapsed suddenly while in Tamale. The medical facilities available could not manage the problem. My office called Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso but they also did not have the required medical facilities for this purpose. They could not fly me down to Accra because of my compromised respiratory condition. I was taken down from Tamale to Accra in an ambulance without an air conditioner, without oxygen and it was such a long journey. We only stopped to refuel in Kumasi, and at this point, I asked myself ‘will I make it to Accra?’
We eventually got to Accra where I spent six weeks at the 37 Military Hospital. They tried to drain my chest, but the situation wasn’t improving. I was in and out of the high dependency ward. At that point in time, my office decided that I should be evacuated as an international staff; they were not ready to take further risk. The point of evacuation was to South Africa because I’m an African, but because my husband worked in Switzerland, he insisted that I should be evacuated to Switzerland. In June 2003 exactly ten years after the first cardiothoracic surgery, I had to have another cardiothoracic surgery to clean out my lungs after all that had happened. At that point, I had to make a decision about my work; I decided to go on a special leave without pay.
I settled my children down in Switzerland because they had been with me in Ghana. Later in November 2003, I returned to Ghana to pack my things without finishing my contract. The next few years were really tough years. Financially it was difficult because I had taken a loan to buy a house with my husband, secured by our two jobs and all of a sudden, we only had one source of income that had to pay for my huge medical bills, children’s international school fees, house and the loan. I did everything I could; I sold Mary Kay makeup, I sold pots and did whatever was possible for me to do but I could not get a professional job. The money did not even come near what we needed, but at least I had a sense of making some contribution.
In 2006, God provoked a recommendation on my behalf, and I was able to go back to work again. This time in Cairo, Egypt. I stayed there for three weekends and came home on the 4th weekend every month. During that period, Cairo was very hot and dusty; it was not good for the respiratory system (all this while I was still coughing and medicating). It got quite severe one day while I was traveling from Cairo to Geneva, and I had a relapse on the plane. I just couldn’t breathe. I came out of the plane and had to be taken in an ambulance to get to the Airport Clinic. Later I went to my doctors for a check-up. At that point, my doctors told me that my lung functional capacity is depressed, and therefore, I needed to have supplemental oxygen. It meant that I needed to have oxygen supplied by an external source, in my house, at work and wherever I was. They felt that it was not right for me to go back to work in Cairo. The project I was working on in Cairo was already challenged by so many problems, and I felt that I couldn’t abandon them in the middle of it. So I asked if I could be allowed just to go and finish that particular project and then come back. They insisted that I must ensure that there was an oxygen cylinder in my office, an oxygen concentrator at home and one that I can spray on in between the house and the office before they allowed me to return to Cairo to finish the project.
I trusted God for favor, and our family friends in Cairo just took it upon themselves to make sure everything was in place. We finished that project at the end of December to the glory of God, and I returned to Switzerland. I got back to Switzerland January 2008 and went from a ‘26-hour’ day agenda to a snow-white agenda. I had nothing else that I could do with myself except to medicate and nebulize to keep my lungs clear of infection and to cough and cough all day long. Just taking care of my health was a full-time job, and because we didn’t want to bring somebody else in to care for me. It was just my husband, sons and me for the next couple of years.
By 2010, the situation had become so bad that at this point the doctors said there were no more medical options and that I needed to be on the ventilator in my own home. They said that in the night because the lungs will become so weak, I may forget to breathe while sleeping, so I had a ventilator at home to breathe for me at night. I lost weight – from 83kg to about 50kg thereabout. The doctors told me the only option I had left was to have a lung transplant. Of course, lung transplant meant somebody was going to have to die for me to live, and I struggled with that. I didn’t know how to pray for somebody to die so I could live. I went before the Lord and said, ‘this is too much.’ His word comforted me, but I asked for one request, ‘Lord whoever this person is going to be, let him/her know You and have a relationship with You, so that I can see him/her in heaven.”
After three years of waiting, I got a call on a Saturday that they had found a suitable donor and I went in for the surgery. I didn’t wake up until five weeks later. Apparently, after the surgery, I developed post-surgical complications, and my system started shutting down, so they had to induce a medical coma. When I woke up from the coma, I was very confused; I had a lot of frightening experiences while I was in a coma. I couldn’t vocalize because I had a tube in my throat attached to a machine that was breathing for me. I didn’t know they were not hearing me. I got so angry because they were not answering my questions.
The doctors came to me, and my husband told me “You had very good lungs, they have stayed. Your body didn’t reject them.” But, because of the complications I had during the surgery, there was poor blood circulation to my hands and legs. This meant the death of the tissues had occurred and they would need to amputate both my legs and my hands. At that point, I had had enough. I just said ‘Lord, just take me home.’ I was not going to be a burden to my family, without hands and legs. What was the point of lungs anyway?
In those two weeks, a friend of ours gave us a word that ‘God will give me the feet of grace that will take me to places my natural feet cannot take me, places beyond my imagination.’ Two weeks after I came out of the coma, I was back in the theatre again, and at the end of May, my two legs were amputated below the knee. To the glory of God, I recovered the use of my hands, life came back to it, and I began to learn to write again. For three months, I was still going to clinics to have the dead tissues, evacuated from the wounds.
I asked God what next? I survived a lung transplant. I am an amputee, what was I going to do next? He impressed on my heart that I am to inspire hope and by taking my story everywhere He would open the door to me. I knew my assignment was clear. And since He had told me long ago that He had called me be an Inspirational Speaker, I knew years later; this was where it was going to be.
The other part was to enrich lives. I wondered what I was supposed to do to enrich lives? While I was going through my rehabilitation, I began to wonder how amputees in poor communities managed. Because to date, we had spent $35,000.00 on mine. I began to make investigations on who supports amputees in the poor communities in Nigeria where I had influence. By the end of that year, I knew I had to have something to do with this.
My life now…
We set up a foundation called “The Feet of Grace Foundation,” and this is the third year of its operation. We do an Annual Charity Walk, every April – commemorating my second chance at life and in memory of my unknown benefactor. By the end of 2017, we have provided support to 20 amputees in the form of prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, scholarship and seed funds to women to restart their businesses.
I also started learning how to bead while I was in the hospital as I recovered the use of my hands. I just wanted to able to contribute something no matter how little to the family income considering how much my medical expenses had depleted our finances. My husband never complained, but I just didn’t feel happy not being a contributing partner. My book also got finished in the process, it is the story of my life, and it is called, “Grace in the Storms” ( https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/9785279073/ref=mp_s_a_1_2_twi_pap_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1521740297&sr=8-2&keywords=Grace+In+the+storms also available in Challenge Bookshops in Ghana). It was written to do exactly what I do; to inspire hope and encourage people who are going through life challenges. I speak at women conferences and churches as well.
My advice to women…
Never give up on hope. You see if you give up on hope, it’s a death sentence. Don’t let the enemy have the last laugh. God has to have the last laugh. Jump on adversity like a springboard, and it will take you to the next level. Thank you.
Interview by: Ama Duncan, Corporate Trainer and Founder of The Fabulous Woman Network
Source: The Fabulous Woman Network Facebook page