The doctor who never dies (Dr. Thomas Akeju, 1944-2020)

December 2, 2020
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ABOUT two days before the devastating news of his passing hit me in COVID-ravaged America, I had scribbled in my ‘think-tank’ notebook a point I was planning to discuss with him the next time we had a chance to talk. That point had to do with the relationship between medicine and environmental literature, the vital core of my on-going book of eco-poems. He and I had broached that topic before, based on his salient contribution at my public lecture on the same issue in June 2018 at the University of Ibadan. So there I was, looking forward to a continuation of the discourse, hardly ever aware that Death the Implacable Foe was hatching another plot on the other side of the Atlantic!

Dr. Akeju and I hardly met without having  some intellectual subject to talk about: the philosophy of medicine itself, medicine and culture, medicine and psychology, medicine and mass communication especially with regard to the dissemination of new medical ideas/discoveries, and, of course, medicine and politics. On these and related topics, we mused and cogitated, we joshed and joked. Sometimes we agreed to disagree; other times we disagreed to agree. And constant and unmistakable throughout is Dr. Akeju’s mental acuity, his vast ecumenical spirit, his uncanny facility for perceiving the connection between the ostensibly disconnected, his robust written and spoken style, his compassion and readiness to reach out, his anger at Nigeria’s disturbingly pedestrian progress.

The root of these virtues reach far into Dr. Akeju’s early childhood and deep into his native Ikere soil, particularly in those days when the right values held sway and education was the unchallengeable champion in the ranks of worthy accomplishments. It was at this time I met the then Ogunremi Akeju at St. Luke’s School, Ikere, where he was my senior by two years. His class (the 1951-57 set) was noted for its keen competitiveness, with Akejuand his close friend, the  prodigiously bright Ezekiel Omosaiye, as the front-runners. Tenacious, sharp-minded,  and inquisitive, the young, willowy Akeju made us all tremendously proud by his admission to Imade College, Owo, one of Nigeria’s top secondary schools in those days, where the all-rounder scholar, Simeon Osayintuyi and Prince Kayode Adegboye, two other Ikere compatriots, were hiscollege mates. Akeju took full advantage of Imade’s superior educational and curricular facilities, gave the study of science the dedication and mastery it warranted, thus laying a solid foundation for his qualification for and study of medicine. Just a couple of years later, he became St. Luke’s  first alumnus to qualify as a medical doctor.

If Ogunremi Akeju hadn’t chosen medicine, medicine would have chosen him. And what a doctor he turned out to be. A careful, meticulous, broad-minded, well informed, and compassionate professional, he was confident about the benefits of medical science and its limitless possibilities. He was not just my doctor; he was also my brother, my friend, my confidant. I can’t remember Dr. Akeju prescribing any medication for me without first engaging me in a dialogue aboutits history and pharmaceutical genealogy.Countless times, he counseled this workaholic brother of his on the importance of adequate exercise and  relaxation,and the vital necessity of regular medical check-ups. I remember once thanking him for all his service, and his reply was “You are one of our stars; we all have a stake in your good health”. I couldn’t have felt more flattered, more grateful.

That was my typical Afenifere brother. An articulate, finickily ‘grammatical’ prose stylist himself, Dr. Akeju was a passionate lover of good writing, a man of ideas. No work of mine ever passed through his hands without meticulous reading and cerebral dialogue with the author afterwards. There is hardly any public lecture I have delivered in or around Ibadan in the past three decades that he has not attended, and whose deliberations he has not enriched with his thoughtful comments. I recall once calling him my “sparring partner”, and he responded by saying “yes, but with safe gloves”.

What a humorous intellectual sportsman we all have lost. Proud, dignified, conscientious; a fascinating exemplar of serious-mindedness and irrepressible zest for life. There goes a Doctor who never dies because he lives in the hearts and minds of so many of us whose lives he has so remarkably touched. Sleep well, noble brother. May your way to Eternal Bliss be clean and clear.

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