Sabaa Akintola, a student of Dentistry and Dental Surgery at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, who lost a limb at five, speaks to ALEXANDER OKERE about the experience
You said in a post on Twitter that you lost your left limb as a little girl. Can you tell us how it happened?
In 2002, I was hit by a drunk driver in front of my mother’s shop in Ikirun, Osun State. My mother had a small shop, a little distance away from the roadside where my elder siblings and I go to join her after school. On that particular day, the driver swerved from the main road and crushed me to a pole within seconds – just like that. My left leg was mangled and my right leg escaped with a little scratch at the ankle.
How did your parents feel at the time and what did they do?
My parents’ hearts were shattered. I lost a lot of blood and they had to keep transfusing me. They thought I was not going to make it at some point. It was pure torture for them watching their little girl in pain, but they persevered and did everything in their power to help me. They were drained physically, financially and emotionally.
What kind of medical treatment did you receive?
I was transferred from one hospital to the other. Immediately after the accident, I was taken to a private hospital nearby, in Ikirun, to get emergency care because it happened in the evening. Then the following day, I was transferred to the state hospital for further care to keep me stable. But the leg was seriously mangled, so I was transferred to another hospital in Ilesha, Osun State, after some weeks at the state hospital. I spent about six months in Ilesha. The doctors tried to arrange the bones, by using an external fixator, and salvage the vessels. Skin grafts were taken from my right thigh to cover the wound on the left leg, but the vessels that return blood from the leg back to the body were damaged. This made the leg swollen after standing or walking for a little while, as blood couldn’t flow away from the leg. Because the leg kept swelling, I was referred to the Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital in Ife, from where I was referred to the University College Hospital in Ibadan, Oyo State.
At what point was amputation recommended?
At UCH, different teams of doctors reviewed my case and decided it was best to amputate the leg to prevent bone infection, or worse, cancer. Eventually, the leg was amputated at UCH when I was about five years old. Due to the prolonged period of hospitalisation and the amputation, I could not use the leg at all. It became thinner than my right leg and the knee got stiff. My parents had to hire a physiotherapist to help mobilise the knee so that it could be functional again and so that I could be able to use a prosthetic.
Some of your childhood pictures show you did not use a prosthetic limb at that time. Why?
There are pictures of the leg when they were still hoping to salvage it before it got amputated. After my stump healed and I could move my knees again, my parents took me to the Baptist Hospital in Ogbomoso (now Bowen Teaching Hospital) to make my very first prosthetic leg when I was six.
Can you tell us about your parents?
My parents are both from Osun State. My father was a nurse then but he is retired now, and my mother was a retail trader. She sells cement and owns a block-making industry now.
Can you describe how the injury affected your childhood?
The very lucid thing in all of this for me was the numerous fried fish and biscuit bones I had to eat to get calcium (which was actually a win-win), the effervescence of the calcium tablet when dropped into water, the nasty smell of cod liver oil in my food, the night devotion songs in the ward and the decoration of the wards during Christmas. There were periods I felt lonely too because I couldn’t move around.
What about your peers, were you able to associate well with them back then?
Because of all the hospital stays and visits, I missed a year in school but I was home-schooled by my mother. I didn’t really get the chance to play around like other kids my age and that took a toll on my self-esteem at the time. By the time I resumed school, it was a new school and it was hard for me to make friends. I was still using crutches then. I got bullied a lot by some of my classmates and eventually had to change schools.
As a child, how did you feel about that?
As a child, the experience was quite hard for me. A lot of times, I wondered how it felt to run around on the playground when I hear the other kids laughing and having fun. I would zone out a lot of time and have conversations with myself before I made friends, changed schools and found out that I was actually very smart. At this age, I already knew what normal saline was, the difference between a cotton wool and a gauze, and I was allowed to clean my wound myself sometimes. I knew I wanted to be a doctor at that point.
After I started using prosthesis and changed schools, my grades picked up. I did well in both western education and Arabic school. That was when my self-confidence started improving.
Were you already at school when the accident occurred?
I was a four-year-old and had just finished Kindergarten Two when the accident happened.
How did you cope at school?
I didn’t go back to school for about a year and a half. We moved to Osogbo about a year after and my mum home-schooled me for a year. I attended NACOMYO Nursery and Primary School, Good Tidings Nursery and Primary School, Good Tidings Standard Collegiate and Federal Government College, Ikirun. I graduated in 2015 with several prizes and awards.
Did you face any difficulty while trying to gain admission into university?
I had absolutely no difficulty in gaining admission into the university of my choice immediately after graduation, to study the course of my choice. I am currently in 500 level, studying Dentistry and Dental Surgery at the University of Ibadan.
What were the major challenges you faced as a student?
I have faced some challenges as a student though. I was a growing child when I had the amputation and my bones were growing also. The remaining bones in my stump would grow and pierce through my skin making it impossible to use my prosthesis. I had to undergo a surgery every year to cut the excess bone and I would miss weeks of school activities. Sometimes, in junior school, I had to write my exams at home, just my teachers and I.
When I got to federal (secondary) school, I stayed in the boarding house. I had to wear my prosthesis longer, move around a lot, and go from lab to lab for classes. My stump would get bruised from excess heat and friction. A lot of times, it would get tender and, on a few occasions, I developed an abscess that rendered me immobile. As I grow older, my activities increase. When I got to university, my prosthesis broke down a lot. There was also more bruising of the stump because of more activities, but I have always had my friends and consultants that are willing to help.
What is the worst form of discrimination you have ever faced?
I have surrounded myself with a lot of people with positive energy and there has hardly been any form of discrimination except one, a woman who openly dislikes me just because her son took interest in me, and that I use prosthesis.
Are you still in contact with her son?
We talk once in a while.
Did she later regret her action?
I don’t know.
You posted an appeal on Twitter for Nigerians to assist you with funds; what motivated you to do that?
I change my prosthesis whenever I grow taller or whenever it breaks down from continuous wear and tear, which happens every year or two. Whenever I change my prosthesis, my parents try to get me the same quality or a better one, because my activities are increasing and they want my comfort. I started from a walker, to crutches, to a wooden prosthesis with a belt at the knee and a wooden foot, to the one with toes, the ones without belt, to the one with a carbon fibre foot, an adjustable rod and skin-like covering, which I use now and which is what my parents can afford.
You lamented that your current prosthesis was wearing out; for how long have you been using it?
I have been using my current prosthesis since early 2018 and it’s almost broken. I sprained my knee some months ago because the prosthesis is not balanced anymore. I need something better as I know my activities would increase exponentially upon school resumption.
I have an ice cream business in school. I hold several political offices in school. I am the Public Relations Officer of the UNIBADAN Association of Dental Students, a member of the arm of Students’ Representative Council in UCH, and a member of the planning committee of the convention of National Association of Dental Students. School activities are also going to be more. I enjoy playing indoor games, swimming and cycling. I love riding a bicycle as a form of exercise and I am starting a YouTube channel soon on ‘Life of an Amputee’. These are the reasons I had to ask for help on Twitter, hoping for a miracle.
How did the idea of creating a GoFundMe account come about?
Someone asked for what we wanted for Christmas and I put in my request, hoping to win that particular giveaway, but it blew up. My tweet started gaining traction and people were asking me to drop my account details and open a GoFundMe because they want to help me with funds.
How would you describe the reactions you have received so far?
Many people I used to know from my primary school, secondary school and even university sent me messages and showed their support. I got prayers, words of encouragement and money from different sources and those made me very emotional.
Were you shocked that Nigerians who did not know you personally made donations to you?
I never ever expected that there were so many kind-hearted people that would be willing to put a huge smile on my face. Ninety-five per cent of the donations came from people who don’t know me at all. I am so grateful!
What did that mean to you?
It means there are so many kind people in Nigeria and I promised myself immediately to work harder and give back to society.
How much have you raised so far for the new prosthetic limb you intend to buy and what impact will it have on you?
So far, I have raised N1, 363,514.72 and $1, 590 on my GoFundMe. Halal match on Twitter also promised me a prosthesis by next year and some other people promised to help too. I hope to get a prosthesis with a dynamic vacuum system and a Taleo prosthetic foot with a derma stocking. This would give me an enhanced range of movement, more functionality, little to no bruising and fine aesthetics.
Many people with disabilities have not had it good with relationships. What has been your experience in this regard?
I have been lucky with relationships as an amputee. I have always had a lot of suitors, right from my teenage years. Maybe it’s because of my pretty face, my brain or my personality. I don’t know. Yes, I have been heartbroken before, but it was not because I was an amputee.