A Bit of Florence Nightingale

Kent Dayton / Harvard Chan

Abu Abioye, MPH ’18, is tackling the epidemic of hearing loss in the developing world—and a raft of other public health problems wherever he finds himself   

While in London as a medical student, Abubakar Abioye was in the clinic observing a follow-up appointment for a cochlear implant operation—a risky surgery in which an electronic device is implanted directly into the ear. “If it doesn’t work, the patient has lost his or her residual hearing,” Abioye says. In this case, however, the procedure had gone well, restoring hearing to a woman who’d lost it in childhood. “She burst into tears of joy,” he says. “She just looked at the surgeon and said, ‘You’ve changed my life.’”

The moment made a big impression. “I felt like justice was being done in the world,” he says. At the same time, Abioye couldn’t help thinking of the contrast with his home country of Nigeria, where 6.7 percent of the population suffers from hearing loss, compared with a worldwide average of 5 percent—often the consequence of preventable diseases such as measles and meningitis. With a population of 186 million, Nigeria has only some 200 ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists.

“I had never known about hearing aids before coming to the U.K.,” says Abioye, who earned a first-class degree in neuroscience at Oxford University. “I was amazed by how these assistive technologies allow people to be part of a community from which they might otherwise be ostracized.” He is now a student in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, on a Kennedy Scholarship. And Abioye hopes to make a difference in many lives the same way that surgeon changed that woman’s life, by launching what he calls a “global initiative to combat hearing loss.”

A family’s humanitarian heart

That’s only one of a number of areas he hopes to affect by combining his medical training with public health, says Abioye—who collects causes like some people collect ringtones. In college, he raised funds to attend student-led missions to provide medical care in Thailand and Ecuador; after medical school, he volunteered to provide care for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

“I have a bit of a Florence Nightingale syndrome,” admits Abioye—who goes by Abu—in a genial British accent, his lanky, 6-foot-5-inch frame folded into a desk in a Chan School conference room. He is wearing a dapper gray suit coat along with a white-and-black-striped shirt and bright white sneakers—a quirky combination fitting his laid-back personality. But he becomes passionately serious when talking about health inequality. “There is so much disparity in the world,” he says. “I want to make a contribution in an area where my being there makes a real difference.”

Abioye inherited his humanitarian heart from his family. He grew up in a neighborhood called Fate, part of the small Nigerian city of Ilorin, halfway between Lagos and Abuja. When Abioye was young, he witnessed stark disparities. The homes were made of clay, the streets were dirt, the local school little more than a tin roof over sparsely furnished open-air classrooms. Because his grandfather was the local imam and community leader, Abioye lived in a concrete house with a well, the water of which was shared with neighbors, and was able to attend a good school.

His mother left for the U.K. after armed robbers repeatedly broke into the family’s home, in some cases causing violent injury and trauma. His father, a surgeon in another state, stayed out of a responsibility to his patients, even though they often couldn’t afford to pay him. “They’d give him yams,” says Abioye, “because they didn’t have any money.”

Abioye was raised by his mother’s parents, who were similarly generous. His imam grandfather would ensure that residents had clean water and got treated for frequent outbreaks of malaria. He also shared his phone—the only one in the community. Abioye’s grandmother was constantly giving guests presents. “If anyone said they liked anything in her house, she’d give it to them. One time, a woman said, ‘I really like your dress.’ My grandmother walked into the bedroom, took it off, and gave it to her.” Watching them instilled in Abioye a sense of social justice and selflessness. “They made me realize it wasn’t just about you as a person,” he says. “You are part of an ecosystem.”

Ilorin to Oxford

When Abioye was 10, his grandmother broke her leg, and he was sent to the U.K. to live with his mother, who made her own sacrifices in her career as a doctor to take care of her children. As part of the only African family in a small town in the south of England, Abioye received his fair share of bullying. He persevered, however, earning grades good enough to attend Balliol College at Oxford, despite not knowing how to pronounce the school’s name.

In high school, he had learned sign language, fascinated by the idea of communicating without words and compelled to understand a population with whom he had very little interaction. Seeing what a difference that made for them, he decided to specialize in neuroscience, researching how the brain processes sound, and chose ENT for his clinical specialty. Splitting time between Oxford and the University of Ilorin, he saw firsthand the disparity in training. “At Oxford, there would be one professor for two students in a tutorial once a week,” he says. “That can’t happen when you have classes of 600 people. The support structure just isn’t there.”

“I had never known about hearing aids before coming to the U.K. I was amazed by how these assistive technologies allow people to be part of a community from which they might otherwise be ostracized.” — Abu Abioye, MPH ’18

He assisted in running a course in ENT medicine at a London hospital, coordinating with a London-based Nigerian surgeon to bring surgeons from Nigeria every year to take it. More recently, Abioye began working with a U.K. surgeon to develop guidelines for cochlear implants in developing countries, to curtail “unscrupulous actors” preying on those with hearing loss with poorly made cochlear implants. “The implants have just one electrode when they are supposed to have at least 12—so not only do you give someone poor sound or no sound perception, you also destroy their residual hearing.”

Socratic method in a virtual classroom

Wanting to reach more students, Abioye took inspiration from Harvard Chan classmate Rose Penfold, MPH ’18, who works with OxPal Medlink, an online platform that allows Oxford students to teach Palestinian doctors remotely over the internet in real time. Abioye replicated the program to create the Nigerian-UK Medical Initiative to teach students in Ilorin.

“Abu is a warm and charismatic person; that makes it easy for him to connect with people,” says Penfold, who met him in 2014 while he was volunteering in Syria. “He fundamentally cares about the global health context and wants to apply his skills the best he can in the future.”

Abioye focused on teaching students in Nigeria using the Socratic method he’d learned at Oxford—looking at cases rather than through rote memorization. At the same time, he introduced them to tools they’d never seen before. “They were reading about CT scans and MRI machines in books, but they’d never actually seen one,” he says.

Despite the success of the program, he realized he needed a broader experience if he was going to make a difference on a global scale and applied for a Kennedy Scholarship—a fund set up in the U.K. in 1964 to honor President John F. Kennedy. It pays full expenses for international students to study at either Harvard or MIT. “Without it, there’s no way I could have afforded to come here,” he says. “It genuinely made a dream come true.”

Lecturer Amy Rosenthal, who teaches Abioye in her practicum on the health care system, appreciates the perspective he brings as an international student. “He is a wonderful, big personality and is always super happy to share his thoughts, but he also listens,” she says. “The two don’t always go hand in hand. I find him to be very self-reflective, which is a strength for those who want to go on to a leadership position.”

Outreach to the homeless

Abioye is plotting his next move, contemplating joining Médecins Sans Frontières to gain more global nonprofit experience or returning to Nigeria to work with the government to reform health care from the bottom up.

But even as he contemplates his future, Abioye has wasted no time in righting local wrongs. He volunteers on weekends with the American Red Cross at a food pantry in Boston, giving out food to low-income families and—shocked by the magnitude of homelessness in the U.S.—has begun a project with Harvard Chan friends to interview and photograph homeless people, creating a “Humans of New York”–style website to tell their stories. “We want to highlight that being homeless and being a valuable human being are not mutually exclusive,” he says.

“Everywhere, people are suffering. There are big changes that need to happen,” Abioye adds. “Regardless of whether I am in the U.K. or the U.S., my mind and heart belong to Nigeria. I am driven to make the lives of my people better in any way I can—small scale or large scale. I will start with tackling the invisible epidemic of hearing loss and hope to use this as a springboard to reform health care across Nigeria and further afield.”

Michael Blanding is a Boston-based journalist and author of The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.

Photo: Kent Dayton/ Harvard Chan