Flying doctor takes to the skies after sister's death

Story highlights

  • Olamide Orekunrin, 27, is a medical doctor, helicopter pilot and entrepreneur
  • She has founded the first air ambulance service in West Africa
  • Flying Doctors Nigeria has transported 500 people in its first three years
  • The World Economic Forum recently included Orekunrin in its Young Global Leaders list

(CNN)Olamide Orekunrin was studying to become a doctor in the UK a few years ago when her younger sister fell seriously ill while traveling in Nigeria. The 12-year-old girl, who'd gone to the West African country on holiday with relatives, needed urgent care but the nearest hospital couldn't deal with her condition.

Orekunrin and her family immediately began looking for an air ambulance service to rapidly transport the girl, a sickle cell anemia sufferer, to a more suitable healthcare facility. They searched all across West Africa but were stunned to find out there was none in the whole region.
    "The nearest one at the time was in South Africa," remembers Orekunrin. "They had a 12-hour activation time so by the time they were ready to activate, my sister was dead.
    "It was really a devastating time for me and I started thinking about whether I should be in England talking about healthcare in Africa, or I should be in Africa dealing with healthcare and trying to do something about it."
    Orekunrin did the latter. Motivated by the tragic death of her sister, the young doctor decided to leave behind a high-flying job in the UK to take to the Nigerian skies and address the vital issue of urgent healthcare in Africa's most populous country.
    A pioneering entrepreneur with an eye for opportunity, Orekunrin set up Flying Doctors Nigeria, the first air ambulance service in West Africa, transporting victims of medical emergencies, including industrial workers from the country's booming oil and gas sector.
    "There was a situation in Nigeria where there were only two or three very good hospitals and they were sometimes a two, three, four-day journey away from the places where incidents happened," says Orekunrin. "We also have a huge oil and gas industry and at that time there was no coordinated system for moving people from the offshore environment to a hospital to receive treatment."
    Currently in its third year, the Lagos-based company has so far airlifted about 500 patients, using a fleet of planes and helicopters to rapidly move injured workers and critically ill people from remote areas to hospitals.
    "From patients with road traffic trauma, to bomb blast injuries to gunshot wounds, we save lives by moving these patients and providing a high level of care en route," says Orekunrin.
    "Many of our roads are poorly maintained, so emergency transport by road during the day is difficult. At night, we have armed robbers on our major highways; coupled with poor lighting and poor state of the roads themselves, emergency transport by road is deadly for both patients and staff."
    Flying helicopters, speaking Japanese
    At 27, there isn't much Orekunrin hasn't achieved.
    Born in London, she grew up in a foster home in the charming seaside town of Lowestoft in the south-east of England.
    Aged 21, Orekunrin had already graduated from the University of York as a qualified doctor. She was then awarded the MEXT Japanese Government Scholarship and moved to Japan to conduct research in the field of regenerative