Dr. Irene Olumese is a profile in courage, grit, tenacity. She is a woman with a tenacious spirit, who takes all that life throws at her and continues to forge ahead with a purpose-driven determination, the kind that achieves unimaginable results.
Irene’s doggedness is unequalled as she had suffered from a respiratory disease for 20 years, which eventually led to her undergoing lung transplant. She was also beset by neuro-muscular diseases. As if these two major health challenges were not enough, she also had a double amputation just below her two knees. Notwithstanding all these Job-like afflictions, Olumese went on to obtain a doctorate degree in Nutrition Sciences from the University of Ibadan, in Oyo State and abroad.
Today, she has turned her concatenation of afflictions (with apologies to the redoubtable K.O. Mbadiwe of blessed memory) in a tool for inspiring and motivating other people through her non-governmental organisation, Feet of Grace Foundation, whose goal is to improve the quality of lives of amputees in poor communities.
She told the Sunday Sun that the idea of establishing a foundation was conceived in 2013 following her life-changing experiences. “I use my testimony of the grace of God that kept me through the 20 years of living with a chronic and debilitating disease to spark the flame of hope in the lives of others who are facing challenging life situations.
“My foundation enriches lives by raising funds to provide prosthetic services and also supports catalytic activities to alleviate poverty for amputees and physically-challenged persons.
By the end of 2017, according to Olumese, her Foundation had provided prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs and seed fund for the re-establishment of small businesses for three of the female amputees and educational scholarship for two amputee boys.
This year, 10 amputees have been selected to receive support from the foundation. Two of them are bilateral amputees requiring two limbs each. The foundation is working hard to ensure that the dream of living without limits despite missing limbs comes true for the chosen 10 amputees.
Olumese recalled how the health challenges that almost took her life started as she said: “Interestingly,
I probably would say this journey started with some serious issues in 1986 when I found myself in the hospital and realized that I had been having a recurrent medical problem. In 1993, it became really bad and I had a stillbirth at 32 weeks in January and started coughing in April. I had a chest infection that could not respond to any treatment. This went on for a few more months without cure. The lung disease was discovered by the end of that May and I was booked for the treatment of my lungs in June, but the cough did not stop even after that. Eventually, after a couple of years, I went for another diagnosis and it was discovered that it was a respiratory problem. All the while, the cough continued and other things cut in and it was discovered that I had disease of the neuro-muscular junction.
“When the cough starts with its depth and sound, people around me would feel the pains and cry on my behalf. By 1998, we realized we were dealing with a serious combination of problems. The doctors called it complex multi-systemic disorder and the diagnosis was made at the University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan in Oyo State.
“I travelled to United States of America and got another confirmation that the diagnosis was accurate and it was debilitating and was going to get worse. In between decision and confusion, I held on strong and told myself that I would believe the report of God in heaven not that of the doctors.
“In that same agony, I recorded double blessings. I had my two sons and got appointment to work with UNICEF Ghana in 2001. His grace kept me. I carried my two pregnancies in spite of the cough; I refused to use the medications during that period because I didn’t want the medications to affect my unborn babies. The experience of the first pregnancy was not too bad but the second one was quite challenging. I had to stop breastfeeding early so I could get back to my medications.
“By 2003, my lungs collapsed and I had another major setback in my health. I was evacuated to Geneva to meet with my husband where I had a second surgery and then try to address the health problem while working with the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) for 15 years in three countries. The diagnosis was made while I was on the job and I didn’t allow the situation to hold me down. God gave me the strength of the inner mind. I fought my health challenges with everything in me and I refused to give up, I refused to go down and refused to allow my health challenge to be my identity.
“Again, the cough still did not stop, but the situation stabilized a little bit. By 2006, I went to work in Cairo and things got worse which resulted to my being oxygen dependent. It was a downhill ride until 2010 when the doctors said there was no other medical solution apart from a surgery that requires
a lung transplant. So, I was placed on a waiting list for lungs transplant which was successfully done in 2013. The transplant involved removing my own lungs and replacing with another person’s healthy lungs. I had a donor whom I do not know that matched me. But few hours after the surgery, I started having complications and that put me into coma. I was in coma for five weeks. When I came out of coma, my doctors and my husband told me that I suffered poor blood circulation and because of that I had dead tissues (necrosis) in my hands, feet and legs and that required amputation.
“With that result, on the May 13, 2013, my two legs were amputated below the knees and I had to learn how to walk again, do things again.”
With the new feet of grace she got, Olumese got inspiration through the Holy Ghost to go about and share her story, to arouse and inspire hope in those who are faced with different life challenges and to let them know that they cannot give up hope even when situations get worse.
She revealed that she had at times come close to death but faith in God made her to cling tenaciously to life.
“When I was in the Northern part of Ghana, my lungs collapsed and I was taken to the hospital where my case was difficult to manage and I was taken to Accra in an ambulance without oxygen because one cannot transport oxygen; there wasn’t even an air conditioner in the ambulance. I was driven to Accra on an 11-hour drive with almost the last breath I had in me and I went into coma. But I survived it. Several times, I have been in the intensive care unit. My coma experience where I was covered with wires and cables were the most critical times; it was just faith that people who surrounded me waited upon God and strongly believed that I would come back to life.
“Another traumatic period was when I had to stay indoors for seven years, unable to go out the way I would have loved to do, tidy my home and I was unable to settle my first son in the university. Again, my son leaving me in all manners of wire and cables across my head, chest, and upper section, not knowing if he would come back to his mother alive were all hurting moments in life?
“But in all these, my amiable husband has not for one second regretted marrying me in my condition. In the 26 years we have been married and known each other for 32 years, we have been friends. My husband who is a medical doctor has never ever made me feel I was a burden to him. He has been a very strong pillar all these years. My husband held me up in the last 26 years. In spite of everything that I went through, he stood beside me and for that reason, I will always be grateful to God.
“My husband would make breakfast before he goes to work, come from the office to fix lunch and dinner. When he is not around, my sons take over. But when I am strong, they would meet me in the kitchen struggling to do things in spite of my challenges. God also raised a lot of kind friends who did our weekly cooking and refrigerated for us continuously for years.”
Naturally, Sunday Sun expressed eagerness to know how she met the wonderful man-in-a- million husband that she married and she said: “We met at the August School Christian Concert in school, University of Ibadan, when he was a medical student. I came to sing while he came to play his guitar that was the first time we met and remained platonic friends for five years. In 1990, he asked me to be his wife and we walked down the aisle in 1992.
“Looking back today, I am proud to say that the day I gave my life to God was my highest point in life. With all that my sons went through due to my health condition, the two boys graduated with excellent results and won two awards each. As a person living with transplanted lungs, I am on daily humongous suppressant to prevent any rejection because it is not my time to die yet.”