"I had polio, and I never got medical help when I was a child. So, when I became a physician, I thought, 'I have to give back,' " said Dr. Ositadinma Opara, Dumas Internist and immigrant from Nigeria.
Opara leaves March 8 to return to his native Nigeria with a team of medical volunteers and thousands of dollars worth of medicines and medical supplies -- mostly paid for out of his own pocket -- for his eighth week-long medical mission to provide health care to people in an underserved area of Nigeria. The community is called Obazu in Imo State, and Opara knows it well. It is where he grew up, and it is where, except for last year when he went to a clinic in Delta State, he has been going every year since 2012.
Every year, Opara and his team work with local medical personnel to provide basic health care to as many people as possible during the weeklong mission. The medicines and supplies they bring are especially valued for their quality and purity. Because of endemic corruption, medicines from local suppliers are often diluted or in some way corrupted. "Sometimes when you purchase Tylenol, you are getting chalk," said Opara. He said the team should be able to leave people with a six month supply of any medications prescribed.
This year, among the seven medical staff accompanying Opara will be two American surgeons. They will receive help from an American surgeon who recently retired and returned to his native Nigeria. Opara says he expects the team will be able to complete about 70 operations while there. There are two small surgical suites in the local free clinic they work in, where they can perform hernia repairs and other surgeries that do not take a long time. Local medical personnel are already screening people to line up candidates.
In addition to the surgeons and four nurses, Opara is bringing an American optometrist and 2000 pairs of eyeglasses from the Lions Club International Recycle For Sight Program. The opportunity to obtain glasses is especially meaningful for many Nigerians living in impoverished areas, Opara says. Obazu has a large Christian population. For those with vision problems, not having glasses means they cannot read the Bible. "They feel so elated," he said. "They bring food and all kinds of things … just for giving them glasses so they can read their Bible. It is amazing. That is one of the most important things I have enjoyed seeing."
The prevalence of diabetes in the area of Obazu results in large numbers of people needing vision care, something that Opara had not been able to help with until last year, when he mentioned the problem to friend Milton Pax, a member of the Dumas Noon Lions Club. Pax was able to connect Opara with the Lions Club glasses program, and Pax's church, the Calvery Baptist Church of Dumas, was abel to pay to ship the glasses to Nigeria.
A big part of Opara's mission is to help train local medical providers so that they will be able to provide quality follow-up care for patients and continue the work of the mission in the absence of the Americans. The nurses in the team give instruction on nutrition and preventive medicine to patients.
Despite occasional violence in parts of Nigeria, security has never been a problem for Opara and his team. "We have been very lucky, thank God. Wherever we go, people provide security."
In the past, the Obazu National Council has been able to provide financial assistance for the missions, but, this year, Opara says, they have other priorities and are unable to contribute, so more of the burden has fallen on Opara. He is having to pay for the medications and supplies and the transportation costs for the nurses himself. Last year, he spent about $15,000 of his own money. Pax says the Calvary Baptist Church will hold a fundraiser and contribute $2000.
In addition to the financial burden, the annual trips require a large commitment of time that Opara says is difficult to sustain while maintaining a medical practice in Dumas. "I am thinking of doing this every other year, because it is beginning to impact my clinic." In addition, he said he needed more preparation time between trips. "As soon as I get back, I have to start getting ready for the next trip." He would like to expand future missions, taking an opthalmologist and a dental surgeon on future trips.
Whatever difficulties he has to deal with, Opara says he is committed to the missions, and he is grateful for the support from the community. "This is my passion. It is a passion I have had for the last eight years. If God gives me life, it is a passion I want to continue. People are very grateful. I had one lady bring us a big goat. … It was such an expression of joy. These are the things that make me go back every year."