Monday, October 13, 2008

Letter from America to Yinka Craig

Our last meeting was years ago at a function organized by the Lawuyis at their residence. I still remember the warm handshake, the hug, and the pat on the back. I also remember trying to beat you to the smile, but mine was quickly overshadowed by your signature smile, with both sets of teeth partially showing and wrinkles stretching happily from the corners of your mouth to the ears. The encounter felt like being received into the NTA studio for an interview session with you on Newsline or AM Express, thus recalling Father Kukah's experience as he narrated it in his tribute to you (The Guardian, October 3, 2008).

I did not realize that you were at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, recently until you had left there never to be seen or heard alive. I missed newspaper stories about your illness until very recently, because I was consumed in my own illness at about the same time. Had I been fully aware of your situation, I would have loved to share some notes with you. I even would have flown to Minnesota to cheer you on and to offer you some inspiration from my own experience.

I was not afflicted with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma like you but I had a problem that required the same kind of treatment you went through, namely, intensive chemotherapy, followed by bone marrow transplant. My disease was myelodysplasia. My bone marrow was producing more useless blood cells than useful ones, which kept me dependent on blood transfusion for nearly three years. I eventually had to undergo chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant in order to prevent the disease from progressing to full blown leukemia, a dreadful blood cancer, which killed an ace journalist like you here in the United States two years ago. I am talking about Ed Bradley of CBS's 60 Minutes, whose smile was as infectious as yours. He was 65.

As I tried this week to piece together the story of your ordeal, I discovered that Tunde Fagbenle had written about your health struggle in the Daily Sun of April 20, 2008, in which he indicated that the struggle went years back. I missed the article because I was still recovering from my transplant at that time. However, I managed to write about my own transplant experience the following month (Punch, May 18 & 25, 2008). It is this experience I would have come to share with you in Minnesota. I also would have been able to share with you the experience of a colleague of mine who had precisely the same disorder that afflicted you but was able to survive it. He and I were lucky to have been diagnosed early.

Now that you are gone, we are left with your wonderful family and your invaluable legacies as a first-class broadcaster on radio and TV, a seductive interviewer, and an innovator of first-class television programmes.

How great would it have been if the nation upon which you bequeathed these legacies reciprocated in kind? Nigerians today mourn your loss, the more so because the legacy your country left for you was that of a poor healthcare system of which you were an unfortunate victim.

The country you served so well for over forty years did not have the necessary facilities to properly diagnose your illness, let alone treat you. So, after languishing in misdiagnosis for some time, your specimen had to be flown to South Africa. The results led you to head for England on several occasions for proper diagnosis and treatment, before finally winding up in Minnesota for the last lap. How I wish you had headed for the United States three years ago at the slightest showing of your symptoms?

The story is already looking like a movie script. But that is the story of your country's healthcare industry. As you well knew before you left, you were not the first person to be misdiagnosed in Nigeria and you certainly will not be the last. Thousands daily are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all and die as a result. My own mother was a victim of wrong diagnosis before a family friend, who happens to be a medical doctor, ordered the appropriate tests, by which time her leukemia had advanced beyond intervention.

Sony Okosuns lived with colon cancer for some time before he knew it. An early colonoscopy would have detected the problem or the propensity for it. Just as you once looked to South Africa for diagnosis, Okosuns headed for India. Like you, he ended the quest in the United States.

Chief Gani Fawehinmi recently shared his experience of misdiagnosis with the Nigerian public. He, too, has had to go to England for proper diagnosis and he is receiving treatment there. Just last week, former Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Victor Malu (rtd), was flown to Paris, France, following a coma that resulted from complications from Type 2 diabetes. In our younger days, young people went overseas for education, while older ones, who could afford it, went abroad for vacation. Today, the elite go overseas primarily for medical check-up, diagnosis, and treatment because our hospitals lack the necessary facilities. Not only do they lack the facilities to cure various diseases, they also lack the facilities for early detection of symptoms that could lead to them.

The reason is not far-fetched, therefore, why many Nigerians die routinely from preventable diseases, including prostate cancer, breast cancer, and renal failure. I know that we often engage in self-congratulation that incidents of colon cancer are low, because of our okele habits, but then there are no statistics to go by. In areas where there are statistics, the negative figures are staggering. For example, we lose over 60,000 women annually during pregnancy and twice as many infants die annually within their first few years. Overall, the probability of not attaining age 40 is now higher than in previous years. Yet, our government's budgetary allocation to healthcare is far below UNESCO and WHO standards. And our health ministry has been without a substantive minister for over seven months, despite the intervention of the nation's doctors.

It is unfortunate that it is at moments like this, when we mourn the premature departure of friends and relatives like you, that the decrepit state of our healthcare system stares nakedly into our eyes and mind. The solace in your own case is that you left for your country far better legacies in radio and television broadcasting, that will continue to benefit others, than the healthcare system your country provided for you, and which will continue to kill others.

But knowing the type of person you were, you would have preferred to use your broadcasting acumen to sensitize the public to these problems and provide education on health matters. I know, for example, that if our healthcare industry were this bad during your heydays on Newsline, you would have held a special Newsline spotlight on health matters to which you would have invited notable experts in the field. So, let me tell fellow Nigerians what you might have told them at the end of such a special programme:

"Before we sign off tonight, it is important to bear in mind what Drs. so and so just told us. First, you should have regular check-ups. Second, make sure you tell your doctor about any new symptoms you noticed since your last check-up. Third, if symptoms persist, seek a second and even third opinion and then head overseas for proper diagnosis and treatment, if you could afford it. Never allow symptoms to last too long before you take action.

"You noticed that the ill or dead people mentioned in this broadcast (read this essay) were all over 60, which means that some of these diseases come with age. That's why doctors recommend that you take your annual check-ups seriously once you are over 50. And every time you do your check-up, you should ask your doctor to order your complete blood chemistry and your PSA count (for prostate cancer) or mammogram (for breast cancer). There are also various specialized tests you should be interested in, depending on the nature of your symptoms. These include EKG (to measure the electrical activity of the heartbeat), MRI (to take pictures of specific tissues or organs that could show abnormalities, such as malignant tumours), and CAT scan (to analyze the internal structures of various parts of the body).

"These specialized tests are particularly useful for early detection of health disorders. But the equipment needed to perform these tests costs money. That's why our federal, state, and local governments, as well as the super-rich among us should take note and begin to invest in their procurement. They are very essential to the practice of preventive medicine, which should be the cornerstone of our government's healthcare policy. Thank you, and goodnight."

Goodnight, Yinka.