Dr. Abayomi Ajayi, an IVF experts and founder, IVF EXPERT AND NORDICA FERTILITY CENTER. in this interview with our Chief Editor, Jumoke Owoola bore his mind on several services offered by his medical centre.
Tell us about your baby-making work and how far you have gone into it...
I'm a doctor and a gynaecologist and I run Nordica Fertility Centre which was established almost 14 years ago. We are in the business of making and completing families; to the glory of God, we have thousands of children that have been delivered to this centre: Almost 2,000 now.
Why did you venture into the business making babies?
Truly I don't know. I think this is what God created me to do. I never thought about it like that. I think most of the things that we are in life are destined.
How did you come into this, was it an accident?
No, definitely not! I decided I wanted to do this in 1992. I had always known I will become a gynecologist. I became a doctor in 1984. My turning point in going to fertility was in 1992. We were going to do a surgery in UCTH, a surgery from which I knew we were not going to get any result. So I was asking my consultant that in other countries and in other places, this patient will benefit from IVF. My senior colleague laughed and replied that I ought to know that in Nigeria, that is not possible. I asked why it is not possible. He replied that it is not just possible in Nigeria. That was the day that I decided that I was going to go into fertility.
So when I finished my residency programme in 1994, I started looking for how to do IVF. But of course, there was no place for me to do it. So I went to work for some hospitals, until 2002 when I resigned from Lagoon hospital to set up a company and opened in April 2004.
Was it like at that point you were convinced that you could do it all out by yourself?
Yes, once you catch a fire and you believe it, then that is the way to go. I remember when I was just a gynecologist, I had a clinic and a moderate clientele, but I decided to go into fertility treatment and people were asking me, why do I want to start all over again? They said I was already known for that, why go into a different thing? I replied that I didn't want to do that again, I wanted to treat just fertility. So they asked why didn't I just continue being the normal obstetrician and then add fertility to it? I replied that I just wanted to do fertility only. So I think I just had a conviction that fertility was the next thing for me to do. It was a compelling feeling I had, that it was the next thing that I should do.
Do you remember your first day at work as a fertility doctor?
It was crazy! I remember the first person that came to the clinic then when we were in Victoria Garden City, Ajah; one of my senior colleagues, he looked at the investment, the location and he shook his head and said, 'Yomi, if I didn't know you well, I would have said now that you are crazy (laughs), but I know that you are not.' That he knew that I was not crazy, was reassuring enough for me.
But you had seen it happen before and you were sure it is possible?
Can you tell us one or two places that you saw it happen before you started?
It was all over the place in Europe. You could go almost anywhere in Europe even in 2003. It was not unusual to see IVF centres there then, but in Africa, we just thought that the infrastructure was lacking for it to take place and people were always ready to remind you of the entire basic infrastructure that was lacking. But I believed so much that it was possible. It was a matter of trying to convince people that you could do it here.
Was that difficult?
Well, I don't think so because there was something that no one could fight with and that is result. The babies were there for all to see. So people could not argue with me that I was trying to be funny. The result kept coming.
So how did you feel with your first success?
It was so lovely for me. The boy is here, he is at St. Gregory’s College, Lagos. He is 12 now.
Was that from a neighbour, family or friend?
No, it was from a patient: Someone that had been my patient while I was working at Lagoon hospital. She was looking out for somewhere she could treat infertility, then she stumbled on me and re-collected that she knows me. The rest became history.
And the process was not fraught with any problem at all?
Well, it was our first try, and it ended up in a baby. That was in 2003. She was delivered of baby in 2004, a boy.
After that, the trend continued?
Well, yes. We had broken the code, I guess.
At that point, what perception of yourself did you have?
Hmm, well, I can say that at that point for me, it was not that strange because I had support not from Nigeria, but from our then parent company. There was no point over- beating my chest because by then, there were already a great number of babies from IVF in the world. We just thought that we could only join the rest of the world with our success.
In Africa, we have the issue of religion; didn't religious people come to you with issues? For instance, some churches believe that some things should be left to the supernatural?
Yes they did. Some people even said that we were playing God. But we knew that they lacked understanding. We didn't take such comments in bad blood because even the bible says that 'my people perish because they lack knowledge.' So we knew they didn't know what they were talking about. So we went on to explain to them what IVF is all about. Some of them listed and changed their minds. But of course their were some who couldn't listen and refused to change their minds. They could not let go of their belief system.
What actually is the difference between a child given birth normally and a child that is given birth through IVF?
The truth is that there is no difference, none at all. We had a programme last weekend and someone asked if the babies didn't have an expiry date? (Laughs) He even asked if they are not like robots! That's pure lack of understanding. Everybody has an expiry date. Not because they are robots or different, but because there is a day for everyone just like they have their day too. That is what we want people to know because all over the world now, there are about six million babies that are from IVF and they are no more babies (laughs).
Though the attraction for IVF babies has been increasing over the years, however childlessness, barrenness are still issues in Africa. Why is there no heavy traffic on the road to IVF?
What you are saying is true, I guess people are still not very aware. Some think that for them to do this kind of thing, they need to travel abroad. And since majority of them cannot go abroad, they forget about it. But the second thing which I think is that, some people cannot afford it. They cannot afford access to the treatment. I think these are the two main things though other things like religion, culture and so on also come into it.
What is being done in this direction, considering that a lot of people are still suffering out there in silence?
Well, we still depend on the media (laughs), it's your job to educate the people. However another problem we have in Nigeria is that, we do not trust one another. So when I tell some people about this, they feel it's because it's my work and I want to eat. But if it's coming from the media perhaps people will understand. I think the mass media really has a role to play in the country if we are going to move away from where we are now to next level.
More people go to church, but less people to a hospital for solution of this nature?
That's because church is free or almost free as it were. The appeal from the religious point of view is that it is free, but here you have to pay.
So how expensive is IVF now in Nigeria?
It is as expensive as buying a 'Tokunbo' car.
There was a time you introduced 'money back guaranteed offer,' are you bringing that back?
Yes and no. Yes for those who are interested. Why we relaxed a little is because you need to pay a lump sum. We are aware of what is happening in the economy and anything that involves a big chunk of money is not attractive to people now. For people who have the money, why not? But there is always an option.
Each time you see that boy, that is, your first work, what readily comes to your mind?
The boy is now like a member of my family. So I do not know how I feel again. He says he wants to be a doctor, a neuro-surgeon. He comes around often, so I don't know how I feel anymore. For me, yes I am happy about the boy, I am grateful to God, but I am sad when I go around Nigeria, I see a lot of things that are wrong, problems that we can fix but are not, we are not where we are supposed to be. The bible says leaving what is behind and pressing ahead. If you are very sick in this country, there is a big chance that you will die. Things that are no longer killing people elsewhere are still killing people here. I think that is what every doctor should be thinking about now.
Why do you say so?
There are some places in the US now that, if someone is shot in the heart and rushed there, there is a large percentage that the person will still live: As long as the person gets to the centre before death. That is what we should have in Nigeria. If we have 170 million people and we still cannot point to anywhere like that, it’s bad. No matter the sector you are, if the health care is not good, it is a shame on the whole nation. I was at a conference last year and it was said that the health sector contributed 0.7% of the GDP, last quarter of last year. That's a shame. It means our health system is a shame. The government has to make the place conducive for investors to bring in money and investment. As far as I am concerned, the health sector is where people should invest in because the market is already here, 170 million people to think about.
What's the future?
It’s good but all of us must get involved, everyone has to decide that he or she wants this country to be better and do something to make it better. When election comes around, a good person and a bad person emerges and you see on voting day, people queue behind the bad person because he will give them instant small money, all that has to stop. We shouldn't sell our rights for stomach infrastructure.
But the professionals are not going into politics?
I think the best thing is to allow politics to be less attractive so that it's only those that want to and serve that will go there. At that point, it's only when someone wants to give back that he goes to government. Right now it’s too attractive for all comers.
You make babies for people, how many children do you have?
I have four.
Why do most of your patients prefer multiple births?
Do you blame them? When they have waited for 12 or 16 or 17 years to have a baby, won’t they want to have multiple babies and close shop afterwards, considering how expensive it is? But it's God who decides the number of babies we have. Yes, we can put two or more embryos but it's still God that determines the number of babies that it results in.
At what point do you know the number?
It is when the scan is done that we know the number of babies.
How do you handle the delivery?
No, we do not handle delivery at all. Not now.
Has there been any problem so far?
Well, the greatest problem could be the multiple births getting out of hand. Yes, it can go as far as 30 babies coming out, that's the largest number so far. But all over the world, I don't think we have had such hyper birth in the last five years. And that has been because of the experience, drug regiment and so on. Since it has been known to be a major problem, a lot of work has been done to bring it to the barest minimum.
At what point did marriage occur to you?
I got married at a young age, it was four years after my graduation from University of Lagos. She is not a medical doctor but she is a health worker.
You are well kitted in blue well tailored suit, which speaks of your fashion sense...
Thank you, but style and fashion is a personal thing to me. It has nothing to do with my being a doctor. I am best in Jeans. That is actually when I feel most comfortable. Mondays to Thursdays, doctors in Nigeria usually dress formal.
How about socials?
I attend parties but for my work, it cannot be every weekend. In my younger days, yes, I did a lot of parties. I love parties. But now I listen more to music though I still dance a lot.
How about sports?
I watch football now. I used to play football years back then; I even used to be a staunch supporter of Rangers FC, IICC FC. Every weekend I used to take my wife to Liberty Stadium then. We were younger. But somehow the love to play football stopped. These days I tilt towards golf. I have all the kits and I try to find the time to play. But time is the enemy.
As a young doctor, I didn't spend much time at home. I spent a lot more time at the hospital working. So these days, I tend more to find the time to be home with the family, especially with my last daughter who is 14 and still at home. At weekends in the morning I'm at work, then to party or event in the evening. Sometimes I take the family to the movies and so on.
You grew up in Ibadan?
Yes, Lagos and Ibadan. I did my second degree in Ibadan. I'm a hybrid of these two places.
Who would you say influenced you most, your dad or your mom?
I will say my dad, and that's because my mom died when I was nine, so I didn't get to know her so much. My dad taught me some basic principles in life, like honesty. My father used to tell me that even if I have to lie that I should not lie. Now I know that there are important principles that must be taught to children. And most often, when taught, they don't depart from it. Now peer pressure is stronger than what it used to be when we were growing up. Now, children talk to people they don't even see. They can be talking to someone in Australia, someone they have not seen and not likely to see. It was not as complex as it is now, when we were growing up. Then we tended to listen to our parents than now, children have a lot of people that they can talk to. I still hold on to some of the principles that he taught me then. He was a business man.
Whose idea was it that you be a medical doctor?
I think it was destined. I never saw myself as being any other thing but a doctor. Before I was 14, I thought I was going to be an aeronautic engineer. But by 14, I knew I would be a doctor. I was among the first set of JAMB in 1978.
If you were not a doctor, what else would you have been?
Do you recall a memorable holiday?
I go on holiday a lot, so I can't remember the one that is most memorable. Family is it for me. Whenever I am with my family, its a memorable thing or place. Whether it is in Obudu Ranch or Las Vegas, it doesn't really matter to me, it's the people that I am with, that matters to me. Most of the time when I go on holidays, I am always sleeping because I am usually tired and just want to sleep (laughs).
What appeals to you in life and what does success mean to you?
I think that both of them are related. When I see a genuine smile in somebody due to what I have done, that makes my day. Then, success to me means making a difference in people's life, not necessarily someone that relates to you. Life is not about building castles but building people.
Endometriosis is new in Nigeria and you have won awards in that area, tell us what it's all about.
I am glad that I am one of the first that started it in Nigeria. In 1990 in UCTH, we missed the diagnosis of a patient and it was endometriosis. When the chest was cut, they said she had a malignant growth in the chest. When sample was taken, it turned out to be endometriosis. And that was my first encounter with it. I asked myself how it can get to the lung tissue. There was another patient we saw, she was bleeding from the navel and she had gone to church and she was called a witch. The sample was taken and it turned out to be endometriosis.
Again in 1998 while working at Lagoon hospital, we had an encounter with a patient who was said to have drug resistant tuberculosis and she had been given two big drugs for two years and she was still bringing out blood. So they said they were going to cut her chest open. I didn't even remember the other patient. We were not managing her; she was being managed by surgeons. All I remember was that the patient disappeared from the bed. She used to work at NNPC. But somehow I didn't forget her name. So when we started Nordica, somebody walked into my consulting room, when she mentioned her name, I asked her if she was in that hospital she replied yes, so I asked what happened to her. She told me the story, how she disappeared and went abroad, where she was diagnosed to have endometriosis. That same year I saw the other patient’s husband at Yaba, the patient whose chest was cut. The husband told me that his wife has endometriosis, so he is looking for someone who understands it.
That was when I told myself that God is trying to communicate something to me then we started doing surgery and started discovering endometriosis. What we thought was not common, we were in a ratio of three to one. Before I knew it, America and all other nations had started talking about endometriosis, and that is how we got into it. Fortunately too, more and more doctors in Nigeria are talking about it now, which makes it better for our patients.
And today it has resulted in awards for you?
We thank God for that and we are looking forward to more (laughs).