THE TRAUMATIC POST-RECOVERY JOURNEY
When a surgery went wrong at Belgian hospital AZ Sint-Jan, Ajima Ogbole’s desire to birth a child was thwarted, prompting her sister-in-law to act as a surrogate. But Susan Ogbole, the surrogate, became crippled after giving birth at the same hospital. With one unable to ever carry a pregnancy and the other potentially unable to ever walk again, the Nigerians are tossed around in Belgium, the hospital unwilling to take responsibility for the traumatic, life-defining alterations to their lives.
Hours after the surgery to remove fibroid from Ajima Ogbole’s uterus was completed at the Obstetrics and Gynecology unit of AZ Sint-Jan Hospital in Bruges, Belgium, she woke up believing that the obstacle she was told could prevent her from having a child had been surmounted. But she was wrong; her cervix was amputated during the surgery. Problem compounded.
In early 2017, she had been diagnosed with uterine fibroid by doctors in Belgium. According to Ajima’s medical report, translated from Dutch and seen by FIJ, a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan confirmed the presence of multiple subserosal fibroids – grows around the uterus. It is “without signs of complications”, the report stated.
Before Dr. Van de Vijver performed the surgery to extract the fibroid in November 2017, Ajima was prescribed medications to reduce the size of the fibroids. The surgery was successful; about 13 fibroids were removed.
During a post-surgery checkup in January 2018, an MRI scan was done, but the cervix, a tiny passageway linking the uterus to the vagina, was not found.
“I checked and I think it is blocked. We’ll need to put an Intrauterine Device (IUD) to keep the hole open,” Ajima said, recalling what the Belgian doctor told her.
But when she returned to the hospital few weeks later, expecting to have an IUD insertion, Dr. Van de Vijver, without prior notification, performed laparoscopy, a diagnostic medical procedure to examine internal organs such as the uterus and the cervix. She was deceived; her right as a patient to not receive treatment she did not give informed consent to was breached!
“They put me under anaesthesia and when I woke up, I had four holes on my tummy, which was a laparoscopy and I didn’t know at the time,” she told FIJ. “I remember asking my husband if IUDs were usually sewn on the skin and from inside of the uterus. For me, it was strange.”
THE FRUITLESS SEARCH FOR HER CERVIX
She did not know the complexity of her situation when the doctor informed her that her cervix could not be found. Medical report described her cervix as “sharply altered”. Ajima was subsequently referred to a professor of Gynaecology at UZ Leuven, an academic hospital, who could re-create her cervix.
At UZ Leuven, before agreeing to help her, the professor said he would take her off the medication Dr. Van de Vijver had placed her on to cease menstruation. The professor thought it was strange that the doctor kept her on the medication after the surgery, Ajima said.
About five weeks later, she had her period in severe pain and blood did not flow out of her vagina — it flowed backward. The professor told her that the retrograde menstruation puts her at risk of endometriosis (which causes pelvic pain) and slim chances of cancer if her body continues to absorb the ‘bad blood’. She was given two options: continue taking medications to hold off her period or remove her uterus.
The professor then examined her reproductive system with a medical device hoping to find a bubble, which would mean that there was a connection between the vagina and the uterus. But he did not find it. The complexity of the situation became clear when Ajima and her Belgian husband talked to the professor.
“What the doctor asked me to do can never be done,” she recalled in tears. “A cervix has never been successfully re-created medically.”
Even if one was re-created, there were risks: when pregnancy becomes heavy, there could be a tear. Or there could be other complications, including infections. He warned her to not allow anyone cut her open, as such efforts would be “trial and error”.
‘YOU CAN’T GET PREGNANT AGAIN’
L-R: Susan Ogbole, Ajima Ogbole. Photo credit: Ajima Ogbole
“In fact, he said I could’t get pregnant naturally or artificially because the connection between my cervix and my vagina was gone and that my best option was surrogacy,” she said.
Ajima returned home that day, switched off her phones for three weeks and wept.
“I never believed that this was what my life had turned into. I knew I wanted kids more than I wanted to get married. The possibility of becoming a mother had been taken away from me,” she lamented.
Together with her husband, she travelled to Nigeria to be with family. While in the country, she sought opinions from two experts in Abuja and Plateau State. Both told her to forget about getting pregnant.
After six months of waiting, another professor of Gynaecology who specialises in reconstructive surgery at the University of Ghent performed a laparotomy – used to diagnose or treat abdominal health conditions – on her. But it was unsuccessful. Ajima had been told the chance of success was slim.
“By chance of success, he (professor) didn’t mean to get pregnant, he meant to successfully re-create the hole that connects to the vagina first so that I can at least have my period and then try to see if they can help me get pregnant. So, when I was told that it was not successful, I could not cry; I was just numb.”
Two weeks later, she decided to take up the professor’s offer to try another reconstructive surgery. After the procedure, she had her period. “I never knew I would be so happy to see my period,” she said.
Her period flowed for three months and then it gradually stopped and began spotting (A period is spotting when there is hormonal fluctuation and bleeding is lighter than a normal flow.).
FOUR SURGERIES IN TWO YEARS
The four surgeries she had within two years still cause a lot of discomfort to her entire being.
She said: “At a point, I recovered physically but internally, I still feel pains. I am not in a good place mentally, psychological and emotionally. I can’t fully perform my matrimonial duties as I am always pained, bruised or with blood.”
Ajima’s career as an architect, fashion designer and entrepreneur have also suffered. Her plan was to shuttle between Belgium and Nigeria because of her business, but surgeries and constant visits to hospitals have made that impossible.
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WHY AN EPIDURAL CAN GO WRONG
When FIJ contacted Meysmans Saartje of Ethias, he said the firm does not comment on medical treatments. “This is forbidden in respect to privacy,” he explained.
However, a medical expert who did not want to be named told FIJ that the removal of subserosal fibroid is not difficult.
“So, for the cervix to be cut during the surgery, that worries me,” he said. “However, it depends on the location of the fibroid. It is possible that it happened while the doctor was removing the fibroids close to the cervix.”
He noted that Dr. Van de Vijver went against the ‘universal law’ of the profession when he performed a surgical procedure on Ajima without informing her of details such as what would be done and why.
“You are not supposed to cry and complain of pains during an epidural. It means the needle went amiss,” the expert said about Susan’s reaction to the procedure. “The skin is usually anaesthetised so that as the epidural is done, there won’t be pain.”
He agreed that something was not right with the epidural anaesthesia she was given, but noted that the tiny epidural needle, even if it hits a nerve, “will be transiently traumatised and the nerve will recover”.
“It is not supposed to paralyse a person for a long time,” he added.
The medical expert explained that surgeries, even those that are seemingly not risky, could go wrong at any time and that allegations of negligence would require in-depth investigations. But no investigation will occur with the hospital and its insurer ignoring the family.
“In a medical process, you may do harm while trying to do good; it is not intentional. When issues like this happen, we can only hope that people will speak the truth and live up to the scrutiny of their good conscience if they have anything like that,” he concluded.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
There are many cases of life-altering medical errors in Belgium. Most times, victims do not get justice because medical workers are treated like ‘demigods’ who cannot be questioned.
The country’s health system is structured such that medical workers are shielded from being held responsible for errors that occur while performing their jobs. Left unprotected, medical error victims bear the brunt of this system.
The system gives medical workers the impression that even when they do tawdry jobs, they will get away with it. And they do get away.
FIJ got reports of two other people who are victims of medical errors in Belgium. In one case, a woman who was given an injection became paralysed; she subsequently died. In the other, a woman’s legs were mistakenly amputated at a hospital in Bruges. The woman is currently seeking other victims of medical error to fight alongside her because on her own, she cannot afford the legal costs, with Belgium’s health system positioned to protect medical personnel from being held accountable for on-the-job errors.
AJIMA OGBOLE’S DEMANDS
Ajima wants Susan, who can’t travel, to be reunited with her family. She also wants the hospital to apologise and take full responsibility for the fatal results of the treatments she and her sister-in-law had. And she wants the Belgian health system to be overhauled to protect patients.
“If it happened to two family members in the same hospital, then we are hundred percent positive that it’s not just us,” she said.
“It’s not just about us, but people coming after us as well as the people before us who didn’t get the justice they deserved.”