My struggles, triumph, by first female northern doctor

Dr Mary Daji Ogebe is the first female medical doctor from the North. The Plateau state-born mother and grandmother, who has retired from service but works with health-related non-governmental organisations, recently turned 75. In this interview with CHIZOBA OGBECHE she speaks on her struggles through a male-dominated medical school and profession, among others.

You are retired, how has retirement been?

I am a retired medical doctor, mother, grandmother. I just celebrated my 75th birthday. Retirement life is actually very enjoyable. I retired before my husband.

When he was appointed to the Court of Appeal, we had to leave Benue state where we lived for 16 years. I followed him and was picking one or two jobs wherever we moved.

In year 2000, I retired completely from hospital medical service. I now do things on my own, like giving lectures on health issues, especially seniors and young people on how to live and grow old.

How to avoid certain infections, injuries, how to combat cancer in our bodies and letting people know that they are cancerous changes in our body, but that our bodies are built to fight them.

We have to enable our bodies by giving them the right food, enough rest, the right atmosphere or we will be heading for a total embarrassment to our systems. If you observe certain things, diseases like diabetes, heart attacks, so on can be avoided.

So, how was your job experience?

I worked in the state medical service for 19 years, between 1971 and 1992, then in the private sector from 1992 to 2000. I partner with organisations that care for orphans and people with disabilities, like the Leprosy Mission, Homes for Victims of Violence, where the children have lost their parents or women have lost their husbands.

Some have orphanages for abandoned children and we team up with them. I am about to start my own NGO. Maybe in the next two years, I will establish my own NGO.

What is your take on Old Peoples’ Home?

It is not in our culture to separate our old people from us, though there has been an old People’s home in Lagos for many years. In the 1970s, I visited it and there was only one at that time. It is not the culture of the Nigerian person.

My recommendation is that, if you are abroad and you can’t take your old parents to live with you, the best thing is to make their home comfortable and to employ somebody to look after them. You can always have relatives who will monitor the person you are employing.

The person will be happier being with relatives than being uncomfortable with her children in a foreign land. Your parents will feel like strangers in a foreign land and will not enjoy their television programs or jokes. It is better to make our parents comfortable home, not a bungalow full of steps, but a decent home where the person can enjoy life and be taken to facilities like hospitals, when they is need for care, or to call doctors to come to the house.

Nowadays that we have people who can read and write and make use of technology, I think we should utilise the opportunity to take care of the elderly, especially with the high unemployment rate. We have a lot of qualified nurses and midwives looking for jobs and can look after our parents when we are abroad.

What motivated you to become a doctor?

When I decided to be a medical doctor, I had set eyes on only one missionary doctor who was female. I had not set eyes on a Nigerian female doctor. I had heard of one when I was in Form 2 and an undergraduate came from University of Ibadan to do a holiday job in my school. She was studying physics and I asked her if there were Nigerian girls training to be doctors. She affirmed. Ibadan was the only College of Medicine at that time and the question helped me.

My mother always told people that I had a tender heart. When people are crying, I will cry with them, especially if they are sick and I can’t help them.

My father was not a strict disciplinarian like my mother as he would correct you verbally, so I was very close to him. Unfortunately, he fell ill when I was 10-years-old. He died at home when I was approaching my 11th birthday and was not even taken to a hospital because of how poor we were and the hospital was far.

Also, people kept complaining that if you don’t know anybody in Jos, the hospital will not attend to you, so there was no need. We had a dispensary in our village and the best we did was to attend it, so my father died without a diagnosis or treatment, it made me sad.

It was one of the things at the back of my mind that made me decide to be a medical doctor. I knew it would be difficult and it was, because the secondary school I went to was a new one, without a laboratory for chemistry and physics and biology. So, when I voiced out my decision to be a medical doctor, our science teacher was very impressed, because she saw that I was doing well and was coming first in class. From Form 1, I was always the first in any exams. I was doing very well in Mathematics and General Science, so she decided I should be encouraged and she took steps.

As there was no laboratory in the school, but the Boys Secondary School had laboratory and had been doing science subjects for years. So, my teacher approached the school and asked the teachers of my particular class if they had room to take a female student in physics and chemistry at O’ Level and they affirmed. She collected their timetable and adjusted it with our own timetable so that I can attend the two schools conveniently. It was a great sacrifice on her part and she did it for Forms 4 and 5 and I was able to offer science subjects without biology.

Another big step she took was that I needed biology in order to study zoo chemistry for medical school in HSE, so since I didn’t have biology, I took entrance exam and passed to study in Queens College in Lagos, it was one of the federal girls schools of those days. So, when the principal came to interview me, she said I should be given biology textbooks to read during the December holidays so that I will be put in the A Class for Zoology with her classmates and that is what I did.

The competition now is very fierce, but in those days, people were willing to bend backwards to help disadvantaged students to do their best. It was male dominated, we were 10 girls in class of 40 students, which was not too bad, but the other girls were from the South-west and South-east. I was the only girl from the North. All the other girls were excited just seeing me from the far north.

What was your experience in Medical School?

In the medical school, I was the only one from the North. The students and lecturers were very excited because they have had a lot of southerners but never had a northern girl to qualify and graduate in medicine. In fact, during admission, I applied to the only two medical schools at the time. Ibadan was the oldest and was offering medicine. Lagos was four years in medicine and I was taken in both universities. I eventually ended up in Lagos, which was in their fifth year in medicine and they were very excited.

They were telling me that I was going to be the first girl from the North to qualify as a doctor. They even looked at the information of our girls who were studying abroad and they found out that they would qualify after me, so they kept cheering me up.

Were you discouraged at any point?

As we were 10 girls, we encouraged one another. The studies were tough. Medicine is not an easy subject at all, there was a lot of volume of work. In Medicine, they don’t give first class, second class or third class awards. In my time, you either pass or have a reference. If you pass very well, you can win prizes in some of the disciplines, like paediatrics, pharmacology and the rest.

I had a very close friend who carried all the prizes and the remaining nine of us were okay with passing very well and not having referrals.

After graduation, was practice challenging and did you have situations where patients preferred male doctors over you?

After graduating, I came back to Jos, because I got married after my second NB, which is two years before graduation. I was the first House Officer in Jos General Hospital and it was my first year of practice where you work as an intern before you register as a full practitioner.

In those days, you wait hours before you can be seen by a doctor. There was no objection of a male patient being examined by a female doctor like me. When I became old in the practice in the late 1990s, some men were happy to see me consulting.

I remember a particular incident when I was working with a private hospital in Benin and was having grey hair and a lot of men were coming from NEPA and Central Bank. When they come to the consulting room, they will be happy to see me. One of them actually told me it was good to see someone who has seen and tasted life and can listen to them carefully. I discovered that people were happy to be seen and consulted by a mother than by a young girl who does not have any exposure or experience about family life.

Your got married before you graduated and expectedly had children early in your career, how did you cope?

When I qualified and came to do my housemanship, I was already expecting my first child and I had the child before I started as a house officer. So, right from the beginning, I had to make adequate arrangement for the care of my family, children and husband.

Throughout my childbearing life, I had an employee who would look after the baby. It was always a mature woman who had her own children. Though I had a nanny from my husband’s side, I couldn’t bear the thought that my children will grow up and go to school, so I will always send children of the nanny or relatives to school and had the nanny look after the children. In most cases, you won’t have a woman who has had her own children maltreat your children or be irresponsible or incompetent to such a degree you will regret.

Someone also looked after the cooking. I plan the meals, while another person will do the cooking. It was tough because the budget had to extend to that extent, but it worked out well.

In the course of your career, were you ever discriminated against administratively because of your sex?

I was enjoying my promotions and getting along. At a certain stage, I was being promoted over one of my colleagues who trained in Europe. I wanted him to be ahead of me in administration because it’s a man’s world. I didn’t want to get to a position where they could frustrate my administrative work. The man got below me just because of the date of coming back from Europe.

So, I lobbied and insisted he bypassed me and it was done. I never regretted it, though some people thought I was being foolish.

As the first female doctor did you mentor other girls to join the profession?

I had the opportunity of grooming girls from my area, but I am not sure any of them became a medical doctor. One of them ended up working in a community health centre because she didn’t get the grades to go to Medical School. But she was able to go through the preventive line.

However, there is a girl who became a medical doctor and has been very successful. Her name is Dr Jennifer Ayang. I met her in Port Harcourt and she had been mentored by her mum through me.  From the day she was born, her mum kept telling her that she wanted her to become a medical doctor like me and she had heard about me from my teachers.

The mother was an illiterate and was bitter that she didn’t get the opportunity to be educated, so she wanted her children to be educated. Jennifer was her first child and she attended schools, primary and secondary, with the determination to be a doctor.

She also married a doctor and she now has her own hospital. I met her mother and she has a paragraph in my biography.

So, in a nutshell, I mentored someone in the medical profession though indirectly.

What makes you feel fulfilled?

I am very much fulfilled because as a Christian, when I decided to give my life to Christ, I decided to follow God’s word. As I pray, I always ask God to lead me in the way I should go, so that I will be in the centre of his will. I have no doubt that he gave me the medical profession and my family. He has led me all the way and I have no regrets studying medicine. In fact, in studying medicine, apart from the glamour you will have as a doctor, you get a great inspiration from studying the human body, its functions, creation and intricate parts and the way God cares for lives.

I am fulfilled that I know God going through this profession than anyone else.

Talking about glamour of medicine, why did you keep low profile notwithstanding that you are first female doctor from the North and married to a known jurist, Justice James Ogebe?

By nature, I am a reserved person. I don’t like showing off or drawing attention to myself. I always prefer to be at the background. I don’t like to be the president or chairman of any association or committee.

If I wanted to be flamboyant, I had the avenue open to me. I could have left my marriage to stay in Benue to become a commissioner if I wanted, but I see my home as my primary assignment even before my public assignments.

I am happy to have a husband who wanted to keep his family as an entity, without having a second wife or children from many women. When you have a man like that, you will feel challenged to measure up and help him be what he wants to be.

Do you have any regrets?

I suffered a lot from poverty and lack in my childhood. I certainly would have liked to be born in a family where we didn’t lack so many things. A family where my mother wouldn’t have to cry in the night and run around to borrow school fees for me to graduate and pay back.

Nevertheless, I believe God used it to toughen us. I am happy that we raised our children to be responsible and not spoiled because we were earning and could give them luxuries but we didn’t.

What I should be remembered for?

I wouldn’t like to be remembered for anything bad. People can remember me for good things.

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