Aggies Team Up With VOOM Foundation To Provide Heart Surgeries In Nigeria
One year ago, Beatrice Nwachukwu went in for a check-up during a community health fair in the town of Oraifite, in southeastern Nigeria.
She was examined by medical staff inside a 40-foot-long shipping container, converted to serve as a portable clinic. The container is one of 47 such clinics built by a Texas A&M University student organization called BUILD that is helping meet the medical needs of underserved populations in Texas and across 22 countries.
It was in one of those clinics that Nwachukwu received some difficult news: Doctors determined that she was suffering from severe heart disease, and unless she received open-heart surgery, she was going to die. A mother working to support her family, she was forced to confront the possibility that her children might grow up without her.
“In Nigeria, when one family member goes down, it really takes down the whole family,” said Shawn Andaya-Pulliam, executive director of the nonprofit VOOM Foundation, the Bryan-College Station-based humanitarian organization behind the health fair where Nwachukwu and hundreds of others were helped. VOOM has been partnering with BUILD since 2020, using its clinics to reach thousands of Nigerians who lack regular access to healthcare.
Andaya-Pulliam explained that unfortunately for Nwachukwu, open-heart surgery in Nigeria tends to be both expensive and rare. Despite being the most populous nation in Africa with more than 200 million residents, none of the country’s hospitals perform open-heart surgery on a regular basis, relying instead on an inconsistent flow of foreign volunteers to carry out these life-saving procedures.
It’s a serious and often deadly flaw in the Nigerian health care system, but one that VOOM’s founder, Dr. Vincent Ohaju, believes can be repaired.
“Our goal is not just to continue to do missions in perpetuity — it is to transfer skills so that we can build programs that will be sustainable over time,” said Ohaju, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M School of Medicine and trauma medical director at CHI St. Joseph in Bryan.
For Ohaju, who immigrated to the United States to go to college in 1982, this mission is deeply personal. Shortly after he began his undergraduate studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Ohaju’s father back in Nigeria died of complications from choking on a piece of meat — something that would have been easily treated in the U.S., he said.
“My father died from something that is really pretty minor,” Ohaju said. “And what killed him is not isolated; a lot of people are dying in Nigeria either from inappropriate care or lack of care.”
So, 20 years later, after finishing medical school and starting his career as a trauma surgeon, Ohaju founded the Vincent Obioma Ohaju Memorial (VOOM) Foundation, honoring his father’s life by working to transform health care in Nigeria from the inside out.
“This is really my attempt to heal from my own loss, and to see if we can save people from untimely death,” he said. “Because you can’t find a single Nigerian that hasn’t been touched by that.”
Though not a heart specialist himself, Ohaju decided to focus the foundation’s efforts on cultivating the necessary infrastructure and personnel to perform open-heart surgeries, since the need for these operations is great and because much of the equipment can be used in other types of procedures, too. Since its founding in 2004, VOOM has completed 33 medical missions in Nigeria, bringing top heart surgeons into the country to save lives and train local doctors.
It was during one of those missions in May 2023 that Nwachukwu received her much-needed operation, enabling her to live a much longer and happier life, Ohaju said.
“When we saw Beatrice at this last mission, you couldn’t believe that that was the same individual — she was energetic and going back to work,” he said. “Now Beatrice can take care of her family, all because of what happened here on Texas A&M’s campus.”
A Helping Hand From The 12th Man
Ohaju is quick to point out that success stories like Nwachukwu’s would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of A&M students, which he calls the “lifeblood” of his foundation.
VOOM maintains a direct connection to campus through the VOOM Ambassadors, an outreach and fundraising organization run by current students, many of whom hope to go into the medical field themselves someday. It was a fundraising partnership between the VOOM Ambassadors and BUILD that helped cover the costs of Nwachukwu’s operation.
“Most of these kids will never go to Nigeria, will never meet this lady, but they worked their tail end off to make sure that she was taken care of, and that’s what’s important,” Andaya-Pulliam said. “These kids are the epitome of selfless service.”
In addition to hosting regular fundraising events like their annual Heart & Sole 5K and Kicks For Charity kickball tournament, VOOM Ambassadors play another key role in facilitating the foundation’s medical missions: gathering up supplies and carefully organizing them into boxes before each trip overseas.
“We can now take 100 boxes, whereas we used to take 10 boxes,” Ohaju said. “Without the students, there’s no way on earth we would have done as many cases as we’ve done.”
Ohaju and Andaya-Pulliam say VOOM’s growing relationship with BUILD has revolutionized their work in Nigeria, allowing them to provide basic care outside of a typical hospital setting. During VOOM’s most recent mission, nearly 700 patients received some form of care inside BUILD’s Texas Aggie Medical Clinics, Ohaju said.
BUILD CEO Kate-Riley Rogers, who oversaw completion of a fourth clinic for VOOM earlier this year, said she is excited to see that her team’s work is making a tangible difference on the ground in Nigeria.
“VOOM Foundation is one of those recipients that we’ve worked with consistently because we’ve seen a lot of positive things come out of that relationship,” Rogers said. “They have had great results with the way that they use the clinics. They use them in a way that impacts a lot of people.”
As Ohaju explains, VOOM ultimately hopes to build a network of Texas Aggie Medical Clinics across more remote parts of Nigeria, allowing people from rural areas to receive medical attention closer to home.
“It’s not unusual for people to travel two or three hours before someone can attend to them and find out what they need,” he said. “We are hoping to place the BUILD clinics not just around the perimeter of the hospital but farther and farther out. We’re bringing the care closer to the people, and the BUILD clinics are going to help us do that.”
As the years go by, Andaya-Pulliam says VOOM is expecting even more help from Aggies, as former VOOM Ambassadors enter the medical field and prepare to join Ohaju on future missions to Nigeria — changing the lives of countless people just like Beatrice.
“The Aggies were responsible for this woman’s life,” Andaya-Pulliam said. “If the future of our nation is in the hands of these kids, who so selflessly do this work, then we’re in good hands.”
VOOM and its partner organizations are currently collecting donations as part of their annual Aggies Got Heart campaign through the end of February, National Heart Health Awareness Month. Donations will support BUILD and the Texas A&M VOOM Ambassador student organizations in their efforts to address health disparities in Nigeria.
Donate online, or mail checks to: VOOM Foundation, 1602 Rock Prairie Rd, Suite 130A, College Station, TX 77845
For additional information about donations, volunteer opportunities and more, visit voomfoundation.org.