In 2006 — outfitted with degrees from Harvard University and Stanford Law School — Onyema turned down jobs from prestigious law firms with starting salaries of $160,000 to build a hospital on the other side of the world. Onyema became chief operating officer of the GEANCO Foundation, founded in 2005 by his father, Godwin Onyema, who has been an obstetrician/gynecologist in Chicago since 1974.
Born and raised in Chicago, Onyema’s ties to Nigeria were limited to three trips to visit family over two decades. Still, it was easy to make the commitment to building a hospital there, he says.
“There were two forces driving me to make this decision,” Onyema says. “One, my father talking about his dream over the years. Two, a general awakening about having a life of meaning beyond making money and achieving power.”
Onyema credits that awakening to “a most amazing speech” by U2 front man Bono at the 2001 Class Day speech.
Fast-forward a decade and plans for the Augustine Memorial Hospital – named after Onyema’s grandfather – in southeast Nigeria are nearing the tangible stage.
“We hope to break ground in late 2013,” Onyema says.
The first phase of construction – a $5 million project – will include a treatment center for AIDS, malaria and infectious diseases, a maternity clinic, a pediatric clinic, an outpatient facility and a state-of-the-art orthopedic center. The first phase also requires construction of basic infrastructure – a reliable source of electricity, wells for clean water and housing for staff.
“We’re talking now to solar panel companies,” Onyema says. “We’re thinking of ways to make this Nigeria’s first green hospital.”
Plans for subsequent phases of construction include a 100-bed hospital with medical, surgical and intensive care units, a cardiac care center, an emergency room, a pharmacy and laboratory services.
Medical missions to Nigeria – bringing doctors, nurses and supplies to serve patients – have served practical ends as well as humanitarian ends, helping Onyema sort out the logistics of providing medical care. The last mission included performing hip and knee replacements. Bringing quality orthopedic care to this part of West Africa is personal for Onyema.
“I’ve had several sports-related orthopedic procedures on my knees and shoulders,” says the former Harvard linebacker.
Once the hospital is built, Onyema hopes to attract some of the $900 million spent each year on overseas health care by the wealthy in the oil-rich nation.
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