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From Humble Beginnings to Saving Humans, A Founder’s Story with Dr. Helen C. Okoye

I am Helen C. Okoye, a Laboratory Physician and Thrombosis Specialist at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital. I am currently a member of the World Thrombosis Day Steering Committee. I am also a Senior Lecturer at the College of Medicine, University of Nigeria Enugu. I obtained my medical degree and completed my residency training at Abia State University, Uturu Abia State, and the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Port Harcourt, respectively. I have a special interest in Women’s Health.
Tell us about your childhood and where you grew up?
I grew up in the city of Zaria in Kaduna state, in the Northern part of Nigeria. I am the fourth child in a family of eight children. Growing up in a large family and as an Igbo girl living in a Hausa-dominated Northern city, I developed interpersonal skills early in life since I had to constantly live among many people, many of whom were different from me. Growing up in a large family has its pros and cons. The pros are that you are never bored and never alone. You enjoy the beauty of diversity. As it is often said – variety is the spice of life! But then, growing up in a large family also meant that the usually limited resources of my parents were going to be evenly shared among many dependants. That meant, as a child, I didn’t always have everything I wanted, as much as my parents did their best to give each of us the very best they could afford. I didn’t have the luxury of engaging in too many structured extracurricular activities but my mum, I recall, made it a point of duty to get my siblings and I very much involved in church activities where we explored our talents. I remember joining the drama and singing groups. All of these helped me in developing a well-rounded personality as a child which prepared me for the future I now live in.
How did you get started as an entrepreneur?
This again takes me back to my childhood days. Growing up, I wanted to be many things at different times, I remember wanting to be an actress, a dancer, a musician….the list goes on. What I wanted to be, like seasons, continued to change but there has always been this constant thing about me wanting to care for the weak. While growing up, my mum had poultry where we grew birds for sale. I saw myself very drawn to those little birds. I always helped with taking care of them, nursing their wounds, and giving them their medications whenever they were ill. I would happily assist the Veterinary doctor who often came to review them. We also had a dog that I was particularly fond of. Her name was Gilly. I took very good care of Gilly and I enjoyed doing that. So, taking care of animals was the first indication of what I would eventually be in life. Now fast-forward to when I was about 10, one day during one of our random family meetings, my dad asked us what we would like to be in the future (for those of us who hadn’t identified a career for ourselves). After some serious thinking, I blurted, “I will be an animal doctor.” Everybody was amused, but I don’t think my father was. I think he believed me. Dad said, “That’s a good one but have you ever thought about being a human doctor so you can take care of daddy, mummy, and your siblings?” That was the very first time it struck me that I could actually be a doctor for Humans! While I did not stop caring for animals, that day marked the start of my obsession with helping humans get better and stay healthy, an obsession I would rather not be cured of. When I got into secondary school, I naturally gravitated toward the sciences. Subsequently, I gained admission into Abia State University to study Medicine and Surgery. My journey to being the doctor I am today has not been a completely easy one, and it certainly wasn’t as easy as I had imagined. It went beyond just loving humans and animals and wishing them from sickness to health. I had my fair slice of challenges, including financial difficulties. As I mentioned earlier, because of the limited resources available for many dependants, I often couldn’t afford the textbooks I needed. I had to either make copies of textbooks or borrow from friends. As much as my parents made sure I had the most basic needs as a medical student, some of the things that would have made it a lot easier for me were not within my reach. Nonetheless, I think those things groomed me to better appreciate whatever I had. I saw the value in having books, and in keeping good friends that were like-minded. In a bid to complement my parents’ efforts in sending me to school, I even at some point during my university days had to engage in some skill acquisition. I had to learn to make jewelry from beads which I sold to augment what I had. During some of our holidays, I interned at a nearby hospital. I enjoyed doing that as it made me feel closer to my dreams. I loved shopping! I remember I used to go to Ariaria (a commercial hub in Nigeria) to buy things at relatively affordable prices and re-sell to friends at a margin. Those were some of the things I did to support myself. It wasn’t the easiest of journeys but here I am today. This goes to tell everyone out there whose current challenge to becoming a doctor is financed, that they can make it work. I know that the curriculum is overwhelming, leaving you with little or no time for anything else, but a trick that always worked for me was the mindset that everyone else was reading whenever I wasn’t. That consciousness made me maximize every little time I had for my studies. In my last year in medical school, we had an orientation on a career path. We were encouraged to move into the more dreaded subspecialties of medicine. Even though all my desire was just to become a doctor so I could care for humans before then, I started craving to be relevant, to go into an area of medicine where there was a shortage of manpower. That was how I decided to specialize in Haematology. Residency days were also challenging but I had the best support system ever! My parents gave me the best academic atmosphere right from my early days. Dad (of blessed memory) and mum were part of every step of my academic journey. I remember, as a child, they would always go through my classwork every day after returning from school. They were ready to give up their comfort just to give you the best. I am equally blessed with an amazing husband who believes so much in me and has encouraged me to attain academic excellence and self-development. I remain thankful to my support system for not just letting me bloom, but also helping me soar.
What is one business lesson you would tell a startup founder?
The lesson is that it is not easy, but it is worth it. Put in the work. Be convinced in your dreams and believe in yourself. There were times I asked myself “Helen, who sent you?” This was a recurring question during the Residency days. There were setbacks, oh yes! To make a name for yourself, you would have to, at some point, decide to go beyond the norm. You will no longer be satisfied with just obtaining an MBBS, you would want to take it a step further to specialize, and you would want to go for fellowships, training, and update courses. So, it is a constant journey to get better in order to stay relevant. So, what am I saying? Once it is in you and you have that dream, nothing but you can stop you. Believe in yourself and keep grinding. All that you need to become who you want to be, will come.
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