The Pioneer Professor: Olugbemiga Ogunlewe

Nigeria's first female oral surgeon has dedicated her career to improving the lives of children with clefts across the country. She found a worthy partner in Smile Train.

Professor Ogunlewe first woman cleft surgeon in Nigeria

Professor Olugbemiga Ogunlewe was the first woman to become an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon in Nigeria and the first woman nominated President of the Nigerian Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons — she is undoubtedly a pioneer.

LUTH teaching hospital entrance

However, the highly decorated surgeon spent much of her career frustrated by her country’s response to children living with untreated clefts. “Our hospital was only able to treat around ten cleft patients a year due to lack of awareness and families being unable to afford treatment. International cleft organizations came to Nigeria, but would leave with many patients going untreated,” said Professor Ogunlewe.

Throughout her career, cleft patients have always been near and dear to Professor Ogunlewe’s heart, as she knew that cleft stigma was so prevalent. As an example, she recalled a child who was taken from his mother, tied to a tree, and left there — while the child was eventually rescued, and her team provided cleft surgery for this patient, she knew many families were facing similar stigma. “Many parents in Nigeria hide their children at home rather than face community accusations — this isolation hurts the children psychologically,” she said.

Professor Ogunlewe with Smile Train staff

In 2007, Smile Train staff members traveled to Nigeria to hold lectures about cleft care. Luckily, Professor Ogunlewe was in the audience and she was impressed with Smile Train’s unique model. Professor Ogunlewe was especially excited that Smile Train cleft care grants would allow local surgeons like herself to perform cleft surgeries year-round — finally giving her team the opportunity to reach children who had been waiting years for cleft surgery. Days later, she applied for Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) to become a Smile Train partner.

Over the coming months, Smile Train staff did an assessment with LUTH and provided the hospital with special surgical instruments and a standardized patient safety procedure. With ongoing support, Smile Train donated pulse oximeters which are used to monitor patients after surgery. Smile Train also sponsored a LUTH anesthesiologist to attend a conference outside of Nigeria.

Once the partnership was up and running, the results were immediate. “With the ability to perform the surgery at no cost to the patient, we started to see many patients — in our first year we treated 100 cleft patients and we’ve provided 500+ since,” Professor Ogunlewe recalled.

A cleft surgery patient from Nigeria

As an added benefit of the program, Professor Ogunlewe noticed that the patients she was seeing were getting younger. She shared, “When we started, we were seeing many adult patients, but, over the years, we have been able to reduce the backlog and now we see more and more babies. Parents are finally aware that there’s help available to them.”

Smile Train thanks Professor Ogunlewe for her pioneer spirit and years of dedicated partnership. Not only is she personally responsible for hundreds of new smiles, but, as a professor, she is teaching a new generation of cleft surgeons to make sure no child living with an untreated cleft gets left behind.

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