Dr. (Mrs.) Tomii Coker is an obstetrician and gynaecologist. She is currently the Commissioner for Health in Ogun State. In this interview by SEGUN KASALI, she speaks about her journey into the medical profession among other issues.
Your dad wanted you to be a medical expert?
Well, Chief Michael Olufemi Coker and his wife, Mary Mopelola Coker were both educationists. That was first. And one thing is I am one of six children. My parents invested in our education. My father made sure we all had the best education. Although I was born in America, when we returned to Nigeria, I attended Home Science. Funny enough, my parents were very keen on me to be a pharmacist because they felt the pressure women go through to become a doctor in those days with old-fashioned thinking would impact on my personal life.
There must have been an event leading to this then?
Yeah. The thing is that in the Coker family you are either a doctor or a pharmacist. I had an uncle, Gbenro Coker, who had a clinic and was trained in the United Kingdom; he was very close to my dad. But, most importantly, I think my decision to be a doctor was based on my mother’s experience and that is why it is key, as medical personnel, to always give our best in service.
Can you share your mum’s experience with us?
My mum gave birth to her last child in a hospital in Lagos and the consultant was a female gynecologist. And when she brought the baby home, she told us how wonderful that doctor was and at the age of 10, I just caught the vision that I could help women to birth their children safely just like that woman who helped my mum. And that was the point I decided that I wanted to be an obstetrician and gynecologist. That was the vision that kept me going.
And this career path started when?
It started at the age of 15, when I had to choose my O’levels but the picture was painted in my head at 10 probably about 13 when I started choosing my science subjects with the mindset that I wanted to be a doctor. My parents never chose for any of us but encouraged us to be whatever we wanted and to be the best, so, they created an enabling environment by making the right decision to send me abroad. I got admission into medical school at Leeds University. But, my father said no, you are coming back to the University of Ibadan.
Why did he say that?
It was because my father believed in Nigeria. He was a diplomat, who had travelled round the world but had faith in Nigeria. He went round and still came back.
How did you feel towards his decision to bring you back to Nigeria?
Oh! I threw tantrums. He booked my flight five times (laughs). It was when he read me the riot act that it was either I arrived in Nigeria with thE flight booked for me or he was coming to get me. So, I came to the University of Ibadan. And to be honest, it was one of my best experiences in life.
How do you mean?
When I think about my actions, look at my friends whom I left in England and my siblings that stayed for university education in England, Nigeria taught me tenacity. The conditions were very challenging. There was no electricity. You had to wake up very early in the morning to shower and this was happening to someone coming from England where everything is done for you. But, it made me to be resilient. That actually served me for the rest of my life. There is no situation I cannot face. I worked in England for 28 years where I had the equipment I needed. And I came here six weeks after there was an outbreak of Covid-19. I developed the resilience and the ability to adapt whilst learning under harsh conditions at the University of Ibadan.
Would you say that was divine?
I believe so because everything in our life is orchestrated by God, and that is why we should not take anything for granted. It might seem hard but there would be a good story at the end of the day. I might not have been this person I am if I had gone ahead to study Medicine in England. I may never have even been interested in Nigeria if I had done my medical degree in England. So, I am grateful for the journey so far.
Any unforgettable experience as an Obstetrician and Gynecologist?
Hmmm! I met a Nigerian woman who already had 23 miscarriages. This was in the United Kingdom. I met her in the course of my consultation. She had been everywhere; America, England, even to the professor who trained me but nothing happened. So, her having a child showed me that it was not science. This is a gift; being able to help women bring their children safely into the world is a gift from God and one cannot rely on one’s ability alone.
Yes. And this was when I was on a mission trip to Kenya from England with a team of doctors; we went to deliver health care at a ghetto in Nairobi. When we got there, there was this woman in labour. I took charge of the delivery and she named the baby after me. And what I got from that,at the time, was that whether rich or poor, we all came the same way because in that ghetto, I did not have the usual paraphernalia of equipment, space and light that I would have used to attend to my usual high-end clients. This was a woman living in a little shed but that baby still came out. The way I delivered a billionaire was the same way I delivered this woman. So, whatever family you came into, it is only the grace of God.
Between your parents, who was the disciplinarian?
They were both disciplinarians. They were both educationists. I got away with some things with my dad because I was daddy’s girl. But, my siblings did not get away with those things. But, if I escaped any of those, my mum was waiting for me. Both of them would not spare us. They gave you your comfort but you had to be responsible. They were strict. There was no smoking. We could not go out after 7 o’clock even up till the time I graduated at 23. It was to protect us and also to put the fear of God in us. The home was built on Christian principles.
You must have been over-pampered being a dad’s girl
I won’t say I was over-pampered. They gave us comfort but they did not spare us as my father would say his children can dine with the queen and also eat with the poor. And you can see that reflect in my behaviour- I can interact with anybody. I am approachable.
What are the traits you took from both?
They were both extremely intelligent but my mum was very good with figures. With my dad, I believed I got his generosity and his courage to embrace everything. He taught us to serve wherever we find ourselves.
You have a penchant for being daring and you climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
I love the outdoors because you are not restricted as I hate being restricted. I like to explore nature. So, you find me doing that. Just before my 50th birthday, I wanted to do something adventurous. But, I wanted to do it to the benefit of others. So, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which I am a fellow of, put up an expedition to Kilimanjaro. So, I signed up because we were raising money to help mothers in Africa. So, I went on that trip and I think I raised over 4,000 pounds and I gave it towards the advocacy.
What is so special about Ogun State people?
Ogun people are very grounded, and exposed. No matter how high Ogun people go, they always remember their root. They are very courageous. So, if you are looking for the first professor of medicine, it is from Ogun State. The first woman to drive a car is from Ogun; I feel there is that ability to express yourself unhindered and family values are held dearly in Ogun.
How do you cope as a commissioner, mother, and wife?
It is not as difficult as it is. And I have actually identified the big things and the little things. So, it is identifying what matters to you- what things are not negotiable and making them your priority. And then, delegating what other people can do for you that you don’t necessarily have to do.
Do you think more women should be given opportunities in leadership positions?
I think women have always had a different perspective to governance because of their innate nurturing gift. And if you look universally, nations led by women tend to be better particularly during response to Covid-19. It was evident that nations that ended up curtailing and containing the outbreak better were nations with female leaders. And I think Nigeria is doing well as it has started giving a lot more opportunities to women in leadership positions.
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