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Hair Braids, Faith and Civic Duty: The Journey of Dr Odry Agbessi, Republic of Benin’s Only Reconstructive Surgeon

By Bryony Doughty

Thursday, June 6, 2019.

At 12 years old, Odry Agbessi saw a national appeal on television in her home country of Benin. It was for a woman who had acid thrown in her face by a suitor she had rejected. The woman’s face, neck and torso had become fused together.

The appeal was to raise money in order to send the woman to Europe for treatment because there were no reconstructive surgeons in Benin.

It was watching this woman on television, seeing her injuries and how she was forced to permanently look at the floor, which brought 12-year-old Odry to a decision: she was going to become a reconstructive surgeon for her country.

“When I was young, I asked myself why are you alive? Why are you in this country? It was a time of questions and in the end, I said, it will mean nothing if you just live for yourself. So maybe if I become a surgeon in Benin it’s because I have a mission. I felt it was my civic duty.”

This dream started a journey for Odry that was to be long and hard fought. Despite telling everyone around her that she was going to become a surgeon she was constantly dissuaded from her goal by those around her. “In my country, women do not often become surgeons. My family were supportive of my education, but they worried about me. They ask me to study something easier.”

When she received her baccalaureate from school, Odry was offered a scholarship to study medicine in Morocco. However, her father refused to let her go.

“He said I don’t know this country, you are too young. He would not let me go. I was so angry with him; we did not speak for three months!”

Odry would not give up on her dreams and once again took university exams. In 2001 she was accepted onto a medical course in Benin.

Whilst in her sixth year of university, Odry studied a disease called Buruli Ulcer which causes skin necrosis.

“It causes skin damage similar to burns. It causes burn contractures and the main care at that time was surgery. The patient usually suffers from disabilities. The international mission used to come to treat and operate on those patients. So I chose to make my thesis in my final year about the impact those humanitarian missions had when they treated these kinds of patients and how the patients recovered.”

Dr Agbessi at work

After graduation Dr Agbessi still wanted to specialise in reconstructive surgery, her conviction strengthened by what she had witnessed in the treatment of Buruli Ulcer patients. However, even though she was now a qualified doctor she still faced resistance.

“My parents did not want me to do surgery. They were worried that there would be a male atmosphere and it would be too difficult an environment for me. They wanted me to do a speciality like cardiology, instead. But I said, no! I continued to secretly send out my CV and look for opportunities to do plastic surgery. I didn’t tell my father that I was again applying to Morocco”

On the 6th of February 2010, Dr Agbessi’s father passed away unexpectedly. “He died at around 6 AM. People started to arrive and we were all crying. Then, at around 10 AM that morning I had a call. It was from a university in Morocco. I had been accepted to study reconstructive surgery in Morocco. It was all on the same day my father passed away.”

It was a heart-breaking moment for the young doctor. “I had the place but not on a scholarship. I could not ask my mother to support me financially. So I asked myself, should I take this opportunity? But I am a believer. I told myself that if God gave me this opportunity then he would provide for me.”

Now, while studying and working in Benin, Odry had discovered a passion for braiding hair and she used to practice and improved her braiding skills when she wasn’t studying. Eventually she even opened her own hair braiding salon. She opened the salon in 2006, hiring two employees and three apprentices. This ended up becoming a major source of income. Odry used the money she had saved working in her hair salon to travel to Morocco.

It was a difficult and lonely time to be away from her family.

“The first three months were very difficult and I understood why my father didn’t want me to go at a young age. Because, maybe if I went then, I wouldn’t end up doing what I dreamed of. I think God gave me those three months to show me what my father did for me”.

The five-year course reconstructive specialisation was expensive, so to fund her studies in Morocco and afford food Odry started to braid hair in the evenings after her hospital duties.

In December 2015, Dr Agbessi qualified and returned to Benin in 2016, as the only qualified reconstructive surgeon in the country! But there were still challenges to face.

“The thing that made me choose my speciality was burn contractures. But where I did my specialisation, in Morocco, there were not many burn contractures, because severe burns were effectively treated. Most of the skills I learned to treat burned contractures were with humanitarian missions like Mercy Ships.”

In 2016, the world’s largest charity-run hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, arrived in Benin. Operated by Mercy Ships, the Africa Mercy travels to developing nations to provide free health care and training.

“I went on a mentoring programme onboard the ship and we operated on many burns contractures. I improved my skills. It was nice! I could see this was so helpful.”

Dr Agbessi now delivers training both at the National Teaching Hospital in Benin and onboard the Africa Mercy throughout West Africa. “I was happy when, after me, there were many other women studying surgery, even if not in the trauma department, but in general surgery. There are now three women surgeons!”

Looking back over her career so far, Dr Agbessi believes it has been a more spiritual journey than a professional one. “You can serve God by serving people. Becoming a reconstructive surgeon has been a journey which has been a strong spiritual experience. God found a way to help me achieve for my country.”

To read more about Dr Agbessi and the work of Mercy Ships, please visit: https://www.mercyships.org.uk/meet-dr-fifonsi-odry-agbessi/

Bryony Doughty is head of Marketing for Mercy Ships and is an advocate for telling charitable stories using positive messaging. In particular, she works to prevent stereotyping and helps Marcy Ships patients tell their own stories.

Hair Braids, Faith and Civic Duty: The Journey of Dr Odry Agbessi, Republic of Benin’s Only Reconstr

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