#LLAInterview: “Watching an amputee stand up and walk again and seeing the unconcealed joy of both the amputee and their family leaves an indelible mark on our hearts and memories,” Dr Irene Olumese, Founder, Feet of Grace Foundation

Image credit: Dr Irene Olumese

Dr Irene Titilola Olumese is an Author, Inspirational Speaker and Mentor. She is also a lung transplant survivor and a bilateral mid-leg amputee. She lived for 20 years with chronic respiratory and debilitating neuromuscular diseases, which resulted in a lungs transplantation in April 2013, followed by bilateral mid-leg amputation in May 2013 because of complications from the surgery. 

Irene speaks and writes to inspire hope using her story. She is an Inspirational Speaker at faith-based events. Irene is the Founder and Executive Director of Feet of Grace Foundation, a charity organization that raises funds to provide prosthetic limbs for amputees in poor communities. She is the author of Grace In The Storms – A Living Proof. Irene is driven by a desire to help people live a victorious life irrespective of the storms they are facing in their lives and to make their pain count for a gain for others.

Previously, she worked with UNICEF as a Nutrition Scientist for 15 years in three countries. She manages her Bead Jewellery business; Hands of Grace Creations—proceeds from this supports the Foundation and widows living in poor communities

Irene splits her time between Geneva, Switzerland, where she lives with her husband and two adult sons, and Nigeria, where she facilitates the work of the Foundation.

In this interview with Leading Ladies Africa, the #LLA100WOMEN Honoree shares her experience after being diagnosed with lung disease and her recovery and healing period, the inspiration behind establishing Feet of Grace Foundation, the happiness she feels when she sees an amputee walk after getting a prosthetic limb and what motivates & inspires her to keep going despite the challenges her NGO faces. Lean in!

Can you tell us about you? Who is Dr Irene Olumese?

Irene Olumese is a wife and a mother of two amazing adult sons. She is the first child of seven children. She is a lung transplant survivor and a bilateral amputee after living 20 years with chronic respiratory disease and debilitating neuromuscular disease. 

She trained as a Nutrition Scientist with a Doctorate from the University of Ibadan. Irene worked with UNICEF as a Nutrition Specialist in three countries for 15 years. She stopped working actively outside her home in at the end of 2007 when she became oxygen-dependent requiring 24-hour oxygen supplementation.

Irene is an Author, Inspirational Speaker and Mentor. She speaks and writes to inspire hope for those going through adversities. Irene established the Feet of Grace Foundation to enrich lives through the provision of prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs for amputees in poor communities who will never be able to afford the exorbitant cost of prosthetic rehabilitation services.

She is God’s handmaiden in relentless pursuit of fulfilling her God-ordained. She is passionate about being the conduit of God’s blessings to others. She is adamant in hope and unyielding in faith. She is a woman kept by the mighty hands of God and made a living testimony of God’s sustaining grace through the storms of life.

Her book, Grace In The Storms: A Living Proof,” chronicles her life’s journey living with chronic diseases for over 20 years and the grace of God that sustained her through the storms.

What was your reaction when you were first diagnosed with lung disease?

That was in 1993. At that time, the cough was just an inconvenience. I thought it was something that would resolve after the first lungs surgery. But the cough not only persisted, but it also got worse with other symptoms becoming evident. It was in 1998 that I got the full diagnosis of what we were dealing with. By this time, my husband had become quite ardent at asking me whose report would I believe. My career was on the fast track and as a mother of two young children, having a progressively worsening health condition was a challenging factor in the equation.

Image credit: Dr Irene Olumese

How did your family react especially your husband and children, seeing that it was an ailment that wasn’t about to go away soon?

My husband is a medical doctor. He fully understood what we were dealing with, and he knew the gravity of every diagnosis we received. But despite his depth of knowledge as a medical doctor, he did everything possible to allay my fears and keep me focussed on what the word God says about my health. Our two sons were born into it in 1994 and 1997. They grew up and matured through it. We did the best we could to maintain a normal family life without making my health the centre of our lives until 2007 when I became homebound. My husband became my primary caregiver. My sons supported him with taking care of me and our home.

My sons were mindful of the challenges with my health and the fact that I had to carry my oxygen bottles whenever I was out of the house, yet they wanted me to be a part of all their school events and sporting activities. They were not ashamed of the mother they had to support even as teenagers.

Post-surgery: Walk us through your recovery and healing process.

I was in a medically induced coma for five weeks after the lungs transplant. After I woke up from the coma, my doctors told me that both my hands and legs would have to be amputated because of the complications of the lungs transplant. My husband, my sons and I discussed this new challenge facing us after 20 years of dealing with my health issues. We drew comfort and hope from the Word of God and submitted to His will believing that God would give me the ‘Feet of Grace’ that would take me to places beyond my wildest imaginations as He promised us.  My legs were amputated below the knees on Friday, May 31st, 2013.

Though I was sure that God has a purpose for me with that experience, it took some time to come to terms with it emotionally and to accept the prosthetic limbs as the tools for my new assignment. My stumps healed with a remarkable speed that stunned my doctors. They proposed that a commence my prosthetic rehabilitation one month after the amputation rather than waiting for the usual six months post-amputation. 

I was determined to regain my autonomy and walk again. This mindset with the support of my family accelerated my recovery and rehabilitation. I returned home after 119 days in two hospitals and rehabilitation clinic resolved to make my second chance at life purposeful and make my pain count as a gain for others.

Tell us about the Feet of Grace Foundation.

The idea to establish the Feet of Grace Foundation was conceived while I was undergoing my prosthetic rehabilitation. The joy of being able to stand upright and walk again was overwhelming. I started thinking about amputees who do not have access to the quality of services I received or the funds to pay for prosthetic limbs. The thought would not let go of me throughout the rest of my stay in the hospital and Rehabilitation Home. The more I pondered about amputees in Nigeria, the more convinced I became that it was God impressing on my heart to do something to enrich the lives of amputees.

I searched the internet to find organizations supporting amputees in Nigeria and the kind of prosthetic rehabilitation services available to them. I found a Foundation with a similar story. It established to help children amputees following the amputation of the leg of the Founder’s child. I got in touch with her for more information. The Feet of Grace Foundation now partners with the Irede Foundation to provide prosthetic limbs to amputees in Nigeria. The Feet of Grace Foundation focuses on Women, young ladies and children (male and female) below 18 years of age.

The Board of Trustees was constituted in November 2014, and the Foundation began operation with the organization of its first Charity Event in 2015. The Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission incorporated the Foundation in January 2016. We held the formal launching of the Foundation in Lagos in July 2016.

The Foundation conducts a series of fundraising events including the Annual Feet of Grace Foundation Charity Walk which is held in several cities around the world. The Charity Walks which flags of our fundraising campaign for each year holds in April in honour of the memory of my Unknown Benefactor (Organ Donor) and celebration of my second chance at life. 

The first Annual Charity Walk tagged ‘Hit The Street’ was held in Geneva, Switzerland in April 2015. To date, the Charity Walk has taken place in more than 20 cities in Nigeria, United Kingdom, United States, France, Switzerland, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal and Ghana. The 2020 Campaign will be online from Saturday, April 18th because of the COVID19 Pandemic, which has prevented physical gathering.

Image credit: Dr Irene Olumese

Measured impact and achievements with the Feet of Grace Foundation

The Feet of Grace Foundation, with the support of its friends and partners, has provided a total of 44 prosthetic limbs (39 legs and five arms), and three wheelchairs to 40 amputees. Also, four women have received support for small scale business, six young amputees have received scholarships to continue their education. Two young ladies received support towards payment of suitable accommodation in school and payment of examination fees.

The Foundation also facilitates the repairs of worn-out prosthetic limbs and replacement replace for children who have outgrown their limbs. There is also an Amputee Support Group that provides emotional support and education on amputee life for amputees and their families.

Motivation and Inspiration behind your organization and what you do.

We believe that missing limbs should never be a limitation to living a full life that can make a meaningful contribution to society. We also believe that people should not be excluded from any sphere of public life because of their health impairment. We want to ensure a future that is accessible to all persons living with disabilities. We want to ensure the inclusion of persons living with missing limbs in all spheres of life.

Personally, I believe our pains will be in vain and wasted if it does not serve as a gain and to make a difference for others.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced, and what’s kept you going? 

The Foundation is heavily dependent on the generous donations of partners and friends to accomplish its objectives, mission and goal. Fundraising is challenging, especially when there are other competing needs in society. There is a tendency for donors to become fatigued. 

The limited funds also make it challenging to meet the demands for support and provision of prosthetic limbs. So, we have to screen and select 10-12 amputees for assistance every year with many amputees on the waiting list for a considerable length of time.

Seeing the difference, the provision of prosthetic rehabilitation is making not only for the amputees but also for their families keeps us relentless in pursuit of every possible source of funding for our work.

Image credit: Dr Irene Olumese

Memorable moments and highlights in the course of your work? 

Watching an amputee stand up and walk again and seeing the unconcealed joy of both the amputee and their family leaves an indelible mark on our hearts and memories.

With how far you’ve come, and your success, what achievements do you hope for in the next five years? 

In five years, I desire to see the Foundation in a position to provide prosthetic limbs to every woman, young lady and child who come to us without having to say no or keep them on the waiting list for years. I desire that the Foundation would have established a residential gait-training centre where amputees can learn to walk again without commuting long distances.

 

The Leading Ladies Africa weekly interview series focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to lead@leadingladiesafrica.org and we just might feature her.

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