Every July, as soon as Iwuozo Obilo, M.D., sets foot in Obollo, Nigeria, he's in high demand. Villagers pour out of their houses, pack a tiny school hall, and line up out the door anticipating his annual clinic.
In Obollo, a visit to the doctor is like Christmas: It only happens once a year. The nearest hospital, lacking in everything except a lone doctor and an oxygen tank, is a two-hour drive away. Few go there unless they are absolutely, with certainty, dying.
For three weeks, Obilo, a pediatrician at Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center, and his small band of volunteers treat the villagers for a variety of ailments that are often "little, little things," as he puts it, but that, without antibiotics or the most basic attention, have become huge. They see many cases of chronic diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic ulcers, seizures, abscesses and skin rashes. Many children have abdominal distension from drinking water contaminated with parasites.
A hospitalist with 15 years' experience in the intensive care unit, Obilo has delivered babies on his visits, opened a child's airway with air blown from an electric fan, and extracted infected teeth on people who were hurting so badly, they didn't mind his lack of dental expertise.
"We take everybody's blood pressure, we test their urine before they see the doctor," he says. As they wait, people sing and socialize, fortifying themselves on sardines, rice and water that the team provides.
Obilo, who collects sample medications from colleagues and buys other drugs with money raised from an annual gala, rarely has a year's supply of medication to distribute to the sick. If they have chronic hypertension, he may give three months' worth and hope that education about healthier practices, along with donated blood pressure cuffs for the village, will carry them through until next July.
Obilo grew up in this village, subsisting on one meal a day, before coming to the United States 30 years ago. "Many children my age died when we were young," he says, "and coupled with the damage of the civil war in the rest of the nation from 1966 to 1971, everything looked bleak. I had the opportunity to come [to the United States] and do well, so I came back."
Michael Guiliano, M.D., medical director of neonatology/neonatal intensive care at Hackensack UMC, says the hospital staff rallies around the mission, collecting medications and pitching in at the annual fundraiser for Obilo's nonprofit Nigerian Healthcare Foundation.
"He's just a gentle soul who's always looking to serve in everything he does," Guiliano says. "He treats everyone, from the most important person in the hospital to the person who cleans the floor, in precisely the same way."
Jennifer Rose, a family nurse practitioner who works in Obilo's private practice, traveled on the 2008 mission. She recalls seeing hundreds of patients every day, afflicted with "every and anything you hear about in this country but don't see, from goiters to blood pressure of 300 over 100."
The school hall was "flooding [with] people, from morning until night," she says. Early in the morning, people would knock on the window of the room where Obilo was sleeping, asking when the clinic would open. Sometimes the medical team would see a person they'd treated the day before, trying to make a repeat visit undetected so they could get more medication. "We'd never refuse them," she says.
Obilo's hope is that soon the village will have a physical clinic so the team can perform surgeries when they're in town — and during the 49 weeks of the year they're not, villagers still can obtain medication and routine testing. This year, the NHF acquired six acres of land for the building. Obilo is raising funds for the clinic's architectural blueprint.
Villagers show their appreciation as best they can, showering the team with the finest mangoes, oranges and bananas. Last year, a man even brought a live turkey as thanks for healing his diabetes-related ulcers. "We refused, he insisted, we refused," Obilo says. When the man insisted again, Obilo gave in. "He said, 'Please, use it, cook something for all the people you brought here.' "