By Katie Chalmers-Brooks
Growing up, Tito Daodu could have easily gotten stuck in a rut by focusing on what she didn’t have: much money or a sense of safety in the rough Winnipeg neighbourhood she called home. Getting dressed in the morning meant being mindful not to wear gang colours. She had to make sure she walked back quickly to her apartment after school. She was well versed in her classmates’ personal connections to the stories on the six o’clock news—‘the guy arrested for a stabbing was so-and-so’s cousin.’ “All of those things felt close to home,” says Daodu.
So too did everything the 28-year-old doctor feels helped her to succeed. Daodu likens herself to a lottery winner—lucky because she had cheerleaders in nearly every corner. “I had a lot of people in my life who said I could achieve whatever I wanted.” She didn’t see getting into trouble as an option; her Nigerian-born mother made sure of that. Her mom’s voice would override those of her school chums, many of whom saw a trip to Juvenile Detention as a rite of passage. Daodu had bigger plans. And she had mentor Ken Opaleke at West Broadway Youth Outreach to help her on her path. She was in Grade 3 when Opaleke called out to her and her sister, Dupe, from across the street, inviting them to join the neighbourhood’s after-school club. Daodu did and has never really left. “I have had the pleasure of seeing her grow from a shy, energetic, nine year- old participant in the program to a now caring, selfless young woman who a great number of inner-city children have come to emulate and rely on, not only for academic and physical guidance but on a personal level as well,” says Opaleke.
Daodu went from mentee to mentor and launched a homework club at the centre, forming meaningful connections to kids as she helped them through mundane school assignments. Daodu says she would be hard on the kids when they didn’t “try to achieve”, just as Opaleke was hard on her. Daodu went to St. Mary’s Academy on bursaries, steadily inching her way toward university. When she earned her degree in medicine from the University of Manitoba in 2013, more than a dozen West Broadway kids showed up at convocation, rooting for “doctor number 2.” (Daodu is the second West Broadway ‘graduate’ to become a physician.) “Quite a few of them have said, ‘I want to be doctor number 5 or I’m going to be doctor number 7,” says Daodu. “When I go back I try to instill in them that this is totally achievable. I look at those kids and I think ‘I was exactly that kid.’” She is now doing her residency in general surgery in Calgary while chipping away at a master’s in international surgical care.
To Daodu, it makes perfect sense to seek out a problem and then try to be part of the solution. As a med student, she made a cold call to a researcher featured in a documentary about the shockingly high number of pneumonia deaths among children in Nigeria, her native country. “It was staggering to me that 200,000 children under age five die of pneumonia every year. In Canada, it would be unheard of for a child to die of pneumonia without any other complications,” she says. Daodu asked the researcher if she could come to Nigeria and help; he obliged. The hospital featured in the film happened to be the one where Daodu was born. She was just four when her mom left the country, which was then under a dictatorship, with her and her sister. (They lived in Jamaica and England before settling for good in Winnipeg, where Daodu’s uncle could be their sponsor. Her father joined them years later.)
The state of care at the Nigerian hospital shocked Daodu. In the first week, she witnessed the deaths of six children from conditions that could have easily been treated in North America: pneumonia, tetanus and malaria. “I had no idea what widespread, systematic poverty looked like on the ground,” she says. Minimum wage there is a paltry 100 dollars a month yet patients are required to buy their own medical supplies. Daodu dipped into her own wallet to stock up on syringes, gloves and needles. If a child needed a transfusion it was up to the parents to coax family and friends to donate blood. If there was a power outage, test results were simply unavailable. Doctors there have the knowledge, Daodu explains, but no resources. She was there to investigate oxygen treatments for kids with pneumonia, specifically machines that convert ambient air into oxygen, a less expensive alternative to oxygen tanks. It took her a month and a half to get a backup generator in the room so they would work in a power outage, a routine occurrence. Her frustration grew when she realized a separate, private ward within the same hospital was well-stocked for patients who could afford it.
The experience reinforced Daodu’s desire to help improve health-care systems in developing countries. She wants to work on international surgical education projects in impoverished regions to ensure first responders are properly trained in basic, life-saving procedures like inserting chest tubes. The World Health Organization identified surgical care among the globe’s top five pressing healthcare needs. The reality is: simple surgeries are getting missed and the consequences can be personally devastating. A patient with something as minor as a hernia—left surgically untreated—might go decades unable to work and be shunned by his community, Daodu notes. She also wants to offer her surgical skills in disaster zones. This fall, she is headed to Haiti, a country still shattered by 2010’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake. “As a surgeon, you really have an ability to make an impact,” she says. Daodu knows it takes leadership to act on these kinds of opportunities. She defines a good leader as someone who is “willing to take in and adapt to the changes that are presented along the way, without giving up.” It’s a philosophy that’s guided her throughout her life and, she’s happy to say, some of the kids from her old neighbourhood too. While studying in University Centre one day, Daodu bumped into a former participant of her West Broadway homework buddies group. Daodu had lost touch with the girl when she stopped coming to the centre as a teen so was thrilled to see she made it to university. The student had faced, and clearly overcome, a lot of the same challenges Daodu did. “It was pretty exciting to see that she had continued on and was doing well,” Daodu says. “It was awesome.”
This story, reprinted with permission of the University of Manitoba, originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of On Manitoba. Tito Daodu, a 2013 University of Manitoba grad (MD; BSc[Med]), was honored recently as one of the university’s Outstanding Young Alumni.