More than a dozen physicians watched intently as Tidelands Health cardiologist Dr. John Ijem implanted a pacemaker in a woman at a Nigerian hospital.
The patient, Dr. Ijem recalls, suffered from a “heart block,” a relatively common problem that occurs when the heart’s electrical impulses are partially, or completely, blocked. People with the condition can experience dangerously low heart rates.
In the United States, pacemaker implants are a common procedure and generally don’t warrant much attention. But in Amaigbo, Nigeria, a poverty-stricken town more than 300 miles from the national capital, Lagos, a crowd of local physicians gathered to watch a pacemaker be implanted for the first time. The year was 2009.
“There were 15 doctors in the room who had never even seen what a pacemaker looked like,” says Dr. Ijem, a Nigerian native who moved to the United States at age 24 to attend college. “It was the first one implanted at that hospital — a federal medical center.”
Every year since 2007, Dr. Ijem has traveled back to Amaigbo, his parents’ hometown, to provide medical clinics for local residents and train native physicians. His trips have become a community event of sorts, with people sometimes asking family members still living in the area when he plans to return. His most recent trip was in November.
“You are probably the only physician some of them have seen in their whole life,” says Dr. Ijem, who has been practicing medicine in the United States for more than 20 years. “When you provide relief from their aches and pains, they are just incredibly happy. For me, that is very rewarding. These are people who have nothing.”