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Published August 10, 2012, 08:21 AM

Park River, ND, couple building Nigerian clinic

PARK RIVER, N.D. — Olukayode Omotunde, a surgeon in this small town of about 1,400, takes an annual trip back home to rural Nigeria every year to perform free medical care.

By: TJ Jerke, Grand Forks Herald, INFORUM

PARK RIVER, N.D. — Olukayode Omotunde, a surgeon in this small town of about 1,400, takes an annual trip back home to rural Nigeria every year to perform free medical care.

But, he said, one particular trip stood out for him.

Omotunde spotted a 21-year-old man with a cleft lip who was too poor to have it fixed and who lived too far from a hospital, so the surgeon offered to fix it for free.

Within the week, the young man’s lip was fixed.

During Omotunde’s visit the following year, the young man sought him out.

“Before the surgery, he was never brave enough to talk to a girl,” Omotunde said. “In less than a year, he found a girlfriend and was preparing to get married.”

The young man’s story of poverty and lack of access to healthcare are all too common in rural Nigeria, and it inspired Omotunde and his wife Esther to do more to help.

They decided to devote their lives to bringing medical care to economically- and socially-deprived rural Nigerians through the nonprofit group, Sustainable Development for the Underprivileged.

“It’s my baby, so I am committed because I can always remember when you don’t have adequate care,” said Olukayode, who practices at Unity Medical Center in nearby Grafton, N.D.

Where Olukayode grew up, only half the children live past the age of 5, he said, as many were killed by malaria and other diseases. “The environment at that time was a death sentence.”

His younger brother and uncle died because they lacked healthcare, he said.

Empty building

The Omotundes have built a clinic in Ikun, a town of about 3,000 in Ekiti state in southwest Nigeria.

Olukayode is from there; Esther is from Ijebu-Jesa in neighboring Osun state.

Though the couple incurred penalties for early withdrawal, they used their retirement fund to pay for part of the project.

“The longer we waited, things got more expensive,” Esther explained.

The clinic now has 12 beds and standard operating and X-ray rooms, but it doesn’t have much in the way of equipment.

That’s where the nonprofit comes in.

Esther, the group’s president, said the couple started it in 2005, and it was officially recognized as a non-profit by the North Dakota Secretary of State in 2007.

The couple has collected some monetary donations and unused hospital equipment, which they plan on shipping to Nigeria before the winter.

So far, they have a light and table for the operating room, an X-ray machine, hospital beds, four exam tables and blood-pressure equipment, among many other items, according to Esther. She said shipping it to Nigeria will cost about $12,000.

Big hearts

Being based in rural northeast North Dakota does present some obstacles to fundraising, though.

“We are in a very small area, so there is little you can do,” Esther said. But, she added, “It is a small place, but they have big hearts.”

The nonprofit’s first contribution came in 2009 during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. They met at a function the U.S. ambassador to Chile, who donated $200, Esther Omotunde said.

A patient who came to Olukayode’s practice from California donated $500, the nonprofit’s largest donation so far.

Hard work

The couple said they find inspiration in their moms.

His mom cleaned and bandaged wounds for the children in the small Nigerian village.

Her mom helped pay for the education of kids who could not afford the school fees.

“If they could do that much with the little [education] they had, I should be able to do more,” Olukayode said.

And more is what he hopes to do.

He said he knows he should be looking at retirement, but he won’t until the clinic is self-sustaining.

Though he visits Nigeria every year, he said he is still struck by the little progress there has been.

“It breaks my heart because I know it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Esther.

“We need to establish something that will outlive us and benefit the community,” Olukayode said. “If all those things can be done, I will feel accomplished.”

Call Jerke at (701) 780-1736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736.