IN 1995, twelve-year-old Odry Agbessi saw a woman who had acid thrown in her face. The woman’s face and torso had become fused together. She needed reconstructive surgery, but there were no reconstructive surgeons in Benin to help her.
In that moment, seeing the woman’s injuries brought the young Agbessi to a decision: she was going to become a reconstructive surgeon to help people like that woman and her country.
This decision started a journey for Agbessi, a journey that was to be long and hard fought; a journey that those closest to her would often try and dissuade her from.
“In my country, women do not often become surgeons. My family were supportive of my education, but they worried about me. They wanted me to study something different,” said Agbessi.
She would not give up on her dream and in 2003 she started studying medicine. Nine years later, the now Dr Agbessi graduated from medical school. Despite having come so far and now being a qualified doctor, she still faced resistance to becoming a reconstructive surgeon.
“My parents didn’t 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 cardiology instead. But I said NO! I continued to send out my CV and looking for where I could do reconstructive surgery.”
Then on the February 6 2010, not long after her graduation, Dr Agbessi’s father passed away unexpectedly.
“He died at around 6pm. People started to arrive and we were all crying. Then, at around 10pm that evening, I had a call to tell me I had been accepted to study in Morocco. It was all on the same day,” said Agbessi.
It was a heartbreaking 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.”
Dr Agbessi decided to seize the opportunity and travel to Morocco. It was a difficult and lonely time to be away from her family. Her father had just passed away and she had to support herself by braiding hair when she was not studying to become a surgeon. Dr Agbessi’s hard work was not in vain and her effort was to be rewarded after five years of study.
In 2015, Dr Agbessi returned to Benin as the country’s only qualified reconstructive surgeon. But there were still challenges to face.
“The thing that made me choose my speciality was the burn contractures. But where I did my specialisation, in Morocco, they treated well the burned people so they did not have many burn contractures. Most of the treatment skills I learned was with humanitarian missions like Mercy Ships,” she said.
Mercy Ships operates the world’s largest charity hospital ship, the Africa Mercy and they exist because every year, more than 17 million people die from conditions requiring surgical care.
This floating hospital travels to developing nations to provide free health care for some of the world’s poorest people and provide training for local professionals. When Mercy Ships depart, they leave a legacy of lasting change and strengthened healthcare in a region. The arrival of the Africa Mercy in Benin was to give Dr Agbessi the chance she needed.
In 2016, Dr Agbessi joined a mentoring programme onboard the Africa Mercy to improve her skills operating on burns.
“I learnt a lot from them. I made friends and did a pain management course. They trained me to train other people too. Then when the ship left Benin to go to Cameroon Mercy Ships asked me if I would go to help deliver training.”
Dr Agbessi now delivers training both at the National Teaching Hospital in Benin and onboard the Africa Mercy throughout West Africa. She has also become somewhat of a role model and inspiration to others. “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 working.”
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 plastic surgeon has been a journey which has been a strong spiritual experience. If I didn’t have such a spiritual basis I wouldn’t have been inspired to do what I did. God found a way to help me achieve. “