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Duluth doctor's dream drives work for Nigerian homeland

A volunteer medical team sponsored by the VOOM Foundation performs an open heart surgery in Nigeria while the hospital staff observe as part of their ongoing training. (Photo courtesy of VOOM Foundation) 1 / 3
Dr. Vincent Ohaju, whose VOOM Foundation helps to improve health care in Nigeria2 / 3
Jessica McDonnell (center), Shannon Clampitt (upper center right) and Dr. Paul Jahn (upper center left) pose with nursing students at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital. (Photo courtesy of VOOM Foundation)3 / 3

Dr. Vincent Ohaju is haunted by his father’s death.

“What he died from is something that is easily treatable here,” said Ohaju, a trauma surgeon at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center who was born and raised in Nigeria.

“He choked on a piece of meat, and he didn’t get it out. Two weeks later he’s coughing up blood and dies from complications.”

That was in 1983, a year after Ohaju, now 52, immigrated to the United States to begin his college education. It sparked in him a vision to bring better-quality care to Nigeria, a troubled western African nation that is the most populous, at 170 million, on the continent.

It wasn’t until Ohaju, wife Ann and their children moved from Texas to Duluth in 2002 that the vision started to become a reality. Ten years ago, it led to the formation of the VOOM Foundation. The letters stand for Vincent Obioma Ohaju Memorial, in memory of his father.

“He never had the benefit of going to the hospital, first of all, because it wasn’t available; second of all, if it was, he couldn’t afford it,” Ohaju said of his father. “So I started the VOOM Foundation in 2004 as a response to that. What can we do to make sure that people don’t die needlessly, like my father died?”

Within the past 15 months, the foundation has begun a regular cycle of medical missions to Nigeria, paid for with private donations and staffed by volunteers. It’s now seeking to increase its visibility and broaden its support. The first big event is a dinner on June 7 in the Twin Cities, with guests including the Nigerian minister of health and top officials of the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, where VOOM does its work.

The hospital is in the city of Enugu, in south-central Nigeria. If Americans think about Nigeria, they probably think of Boko Haram, the abduction of more than 260 schoolgirls and a string of horrific bombings. But all of that is in the north, Ohaju said.

“Relatively speaking, (Enugu) is one of the safest places in the country,” he said.

Ohaju’s childhood wasn’t always safe. He missed his first-grade year because the Nigerian civil war affected his village. He graduated from high school with college-worthy grades but without the money to further his education. So at 17, he started to work in Lagos, a coastal city.

In Lagos, a retired nurse told him that in the United States, he’d be able to work himself through school. She offered to pay his tuition for the first semester.

Twenty years later, Ohaju was in Texas, married with six children, and looking for a place to begin practice. Duluth fit the criteria of a smaller community with a Level 2 trauma center, and a close friend had suggested they try Minnesota.

Now, three of the Ohajus’ six children are in medical school, one just graduated from nursing school and the two youngest are students at the College of St. Scholastica.

While in Texas, Ohaju often talked about his vision to improve medical care in Nigeria, but he never gained sufficient support, he said. It took just two years in Duluth until the foundation had its beginnings.

“Honest to goodness, this city, for its size, has more people going on missions of any kind … than I’d heard of in all the 20 years I lived in Texas,” Ohaju said.

Exploratory trips in 2011 led Ohaju to conclude that the teaching hospital in Enugu was the best place for the work he envisioned. It had a thousand beds but was stuck in the Florence Nightingale era, he said.

“A 1,000-bed hospital … did not have one functional ventilator,” he said. “Not one. Remember what my father died from — a loss of airway — so that’s important.”

He challenged the hospital’s management to build two operating room theaters and a four-bed intensive care unit. If they’d do that, he’d bring teams to train the staff.

They did, and in March 2013, VOOM’s first 13-person medical team arrived at the teaching hospital for 10 days of clinical work and teaching. Four additional missions have taken place since, with another scheduled for June.

One of the volunteers on that first trip was Jessica McDonnell, a registered nurse who has worked in the surgical intensive care unit with Ohaju for three years. Her husband, Adam McDonnell, said he initially had concerns about his wife’s safety, but Ohaju was able to allay his worries.

“She absolutely loved it. It was completely safe,” McDonnell said. “Seeing … the joy it brought her, I said, ‘OK, I just want to help.’”

So McDonnell, who is branch manager for Emerald Connect in Duluth, is using his business skills to help VOOM broaden its base and gain visibility. The June 7 dinner is part of that effort.

The foundation already has benefited from manufacturers donating vital equipment, and supplies worth thousands of dollars from Essentia Health, Ohaju said.

VOOM has 12 volunteer board members and already has had about 200 volunteers from Duluth and around the world for its missions. Their goal is to teach, not just to do.

“We know we can do far more if somehow we can enable the people to do what we’re doing,” Ohaju said. “We know that this is a long-term investment.”

To learn more A 10th anniversary celebration and volunteer recognition dinner for the VOOM Foundation will take place from 5-10 p.m. June 7 at the Embassy Suites Minneapolis Airport in Bloomington. Dr. Peter Person, CEO of Essentia Health Systems, will be the keynote speaker, and special guests will include Onyebuchi Chukwu, federal minister of health for Nigeria. The event will include a silent auction to raise support for future missions. Tickets are $75. More information is available at