On a quiet street on Victoria Island in Lagos, the pale, freshly painted walls of the Marcelle Ruth Cancer Centre & Specialist Hospital create a restful atmosphere for patients from the moment they arrive. Inside, they’ll find some of the most sophisticated equipment for diagnosing and treating cancer — enabling them, often for the first time, to get their care close to home.
Marcelle Ruth, which was inaugurated in April 2021, is the culmination of years of dreaming, planning and persevering by Dr. Modupe Elebute-Odunsi, a hematologist-oncologist who grew up in Lagos. She lived for more than 30 years in the United Kingdom, working in private practice and consulting for two large public teaching hospitals.
“Around the time I turned 50, about seven years ago, I suddenly began to think very carefully about where I wanted to be when I retired,” Dr. Elebute-Odunsi says. She started feeling a pull to return to Nigeria and set up her own business. A couple of years later, at a friend’s dinner party, she divulged her vision to another guest, who turned out to be Chris Stirling, the head of global life sciences for consulting firm KPMG. He encouraged her to pursue the idea, explaining that while patients could receive chemotherapy and cancer surgery in Africa, it was difficult to get services for radiotherapy, which uses targeted high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. That gap in care often forced patients to travel abroad for treatment.
For the next few years, Dr. Elebute-Odunsi and her husband, Bolaji Odunsi, cofounder of investment firm Stirling Square Capital Partners, flew to Africa, Europe and the United States. They met with medical-equipment providers and other experts to learn how they could build, equip and staff a hospital in Nigeria.
One of the biggest challenges was infrastructure. The couple visited more than 50 sites over three years before choosing the location for Marcelle Ruth. Few places in Lagos have reliable electricity around the clock, so the cancer center had to be directly attached to a substation, which provides 20 hours of electricity a day. The hospital also needed its own system for disposing of biological and radioactive waste.
“Nothing is really straightforward,” Dr. Elebute-Odunsi says. “You have to be flexible with your plans and think in new ways.”
To plan creatively, they had help from GE Healthcare. Having people on the ground who understood the environment and could be available quickly to resolve issues made a big difference. “I remember going to one of the first meetings, where they brought all their technical staff in the room, and being really impressed by how knowledgeable they were about all the different equipment that they were looking after,” she says.
In the hospital, GE Healthcare installed a range of radiology machines. The Senographe Pristina 3D mammography system provides high-quality images. The LOGIQ F8 Ultrasound allows physicians to conduct a range of imaging exams, including for the kidney, scrotum and prostate. The BRIVO XR575 X-Ray Flat Panel Detector system is used for routine digital imaging and the BRIVO OEC 785 C-arm for imaging in an operating room. Finally, the Discovery RT: Advanced Radiotherapy Planning Computed Tomography (CT) System helps doctors plan radiation therapy treatment.
Bringing in all that equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t easy. None of the machines are manufactured in Nigeria, so the team had to navigate global lockdowns and shipping delays. They also needed experts on some of the equipment to be able to get into the country to help with installation and clinical applications training.
As the GE Healthcare team was doing its work, the Marcelle Ruth hospital also was installing a Varian TrueBeam radiotherapy system.
“You have a one-stop shop for cancer treatment,” says Eyong Ebai, general manager for sub-Saharan Africa at GE Healthcare, who worked closely with Dr. Elebute-Odunsi on the project. “It’s known as a cancer center, but it also has great expertise in other clinical areas and primary care. The quality of service offered, be it in infrastructure or clinical expertise or post-treatment focus, is the same that you’ll get anywhere in the world, be it in Europe or the U.S.”
Marcelle Ruth already has grown from a staff of five people to 45. In addition to cancer treatment, it offers a concierge wellness service to help patients get all their checkups and diagnostic exams in one place. The hospital is named for Dr. Elebute-Odunsi’s late mother-in-law, Marcelle Ruth Odunsi, who lived in Nigeria for decades and was an administrator at two prominent colleges. She died from metastatic breast cancer in 1998.
“It was important that she was recognized in that way and also as a thank-you to my husband, who has been my only funder, actually, to date,” Dr. Elebute-Odunsi says. “It is really a massive sacrifice on his part — not just financially, but also the energy and the passion and the planning and the engineering that he brought to the building.”
Ebai describes GE Healthcare’s connection with the center as a long-term relationship. “We’ve reached an extremely important milestone with the launch of the facility,” he says. “Now it’s about how we work with the facility over time to ensure the equipment is optimized and how our engineering teams support the biomedical scientists, which is really important for the sustainability of a center like this.”
“There’s a lot of mistrust about healthcare in Nigeria, and we need to start changing that narrative,” she says. “People should start to believe they can get the care they need in this country. They don’t have to leave.”
For Dr. Elebute-Odunsi, the journey has been frustrating at times, but also exciting. She knows that cancer patients have better outcomes if they can receive treatment closer to home. “There’s a lot of mistrust about healthcare in Nigeria, and we need to start changing that narrative,” she says. “People should start to believe they can get the care they need in this country. They don’t have to leave.”
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