Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.
This week’s #ZikokoWhatSheSaid subject is Itohan, a 20-year-old Nigerian woman. She talks about why surviving a scoliosis surgery was big for her, getting surgery in India, gaining weight after and growing into a thrill seeker who plans to retire at 35.
Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. The cause isn’t known, but symptoms typically occur from childhood and range from a hump in the lower back to uneven shoulders/hips.
What’s something about your life that makes you happy?
I guess my happy story is accomplishing shit. I’m a big brain, and to be honest, that’s bad bitch doings.
Okay, smarty pants. What’s one big thing you’ve done at 20 that blows your mind?
I’d say surviving my scoliosis surgery. That was big for me.
In what way?
The things I got to achieve after. I mean, it fucked up my weight and mental. But it is what it is; it happened.
I didn’t know I had scoliosis, right? I had a funny walk when I was 13, and my mum thought I was trying to do guy. But that same year, I saw a bunch of pamphlets about different medical things at home. It had everything on scoliosis, lung and heart diseases. I loved to read as a child, so I read all of them.
When I was done with the scoliosis pamphlet, I gave it to my mum and told her the symptoms were exactly what was happening to me. She read it and called my aunt who’s a nurse in the UK. She said I should go for an x-ray. I was right.
How did you feel about the diagnosis at 13?
I felt relieved. Growing up, people made so many comments about my body. They still do, but back then, the comments made me feel like everything was my fault. So even though it was kind of sad finding out, I also felt happy.
I also wouldn’t have figured things out without reading the pamphlets. That’s why when people say they don’t self-diagnose, I’m like hmm… that’s what saved my life.
So how did things progress after confirming it was scoliosis?
Getting surgery was the first option, but I didn’t want one. The idea just made me so uncomfortable, and my mum said I didn’t have to do it if there were other options to explore. So that’s what began the many many hospital visits.
Were there drastic changes in other parts of your life?
I was out of school more than I was in it. There were hospital visits three times a week, with a lot of tests and scans. But I was in SS 3, so for the most part, I didn’t need to be in school. The exhausting part for my mum and I was showing up at the hospital.
But why so many hospital visits if you weren’t getting surgery though?
I needed to get a brace customised for me at Igbobi Hospital. The doctors said there was nothing they could do except try to stop the spine from bending anymore. As in, my spine will be bent o, but they’d try to prevent it from getting worse.
The doctors also told me my mum was irresponsible for not knowing I had scoliosis. When it’s not like scoliosis is something they teach everyone everywhere.
I’m really sorry about that. Did the brace help with your back, at least?
No. It was so uncomfortable. I cried the first day I wore it. My mum had to hold me when we got home. I didn’t want to wear the god-forsaken thing. It was made of plastic, looked so weird and made my clothes bulky. And they said I’d have to wear it for at least 22 hours a day. As in, I’d sleep in it and only take it off to bathe.
I didn’t put it on again after the first day. I was ready to have the surgery and kept going for consultations until then..
When did that happen?
A year later. I’d turned 14 by then. Making the decision meant another round of tests. The main question was where the surgery could be done? My mum didn’t want it to halt my life. She wanted somewhere that would guarantee I’d get healed quickly and move on. Nigeria wasn’t an option for us.
So how did things go in India?
Can you believe the doctors in Igbobi refused to release my x-ray? They asked me to stay in Nigeria so they could monitor the progression of my sickness for the doctors to learn.
LOL. My mother said, “you want to use my only child for practicals”. We stole my x-ray. We told one of the doctors we needed a photocopy of the documents. They told us to talk to the student doctors instead for any questions we had. I guess they were busy that day.
Luckily, the student didn’t stress about getting the documents for us to make photocopies. Turned out the main doctor in charge of my case had it in the boot of his car; is he not mad? When the student brought it back, my mum took it, entered our car and never went back to the hospital.
A lot of James Bond stuff happened o. Like I paid for it, it was my property, but I had to steal it.
But why did you choose India?
Hospitals in the US said I’d need to stay for a year post-surgery. The UK said six months, Germany was three months, but India gave me two weeks to get back into a normal routine. Clearly, you can see where we went.
Weren’t the extra days needed for recovery?
They also wanted to use me for practicals. Staying was less about the recovery and more about monitoring my movement and abilities. It’s not common to have scoliosis surgery. Only 2% – 3% of children get it, so people wanted to use me as a test subject.
So what happened after the Igbobi James bond saga?
LOL. We started doing research on Indian hospitals for scoliosis surgery. We found one with the help of my mum’s old classmates. She also had a child who’d had surgery in India and recommended a place.
How did it feel knowing things were about to get better?
Experiencing India for the first time was the best part of the process. Their food slaps. But when they attempted to make Nigerian food in the hospital? The ghetto. I guess they were trying to make me comfortable as a child. And they seemed to like Nigerians as well.
I had doctors who’d come in after looking at my file saying “You Nigerian? I love Abuja, Lagos. Yes, yes. Great people.” The energy just didn’t reach the food. Imagine putting one whole okra in my stew. No grating or boiling, just raw okra inside stew to eat rice.
LOL. Okra and rice is normal in Côte d’Ivoire, sis.
Fair enough. The free drinks were compensation. Once you enter a shop, “orange juice? mango juice?” everywhere.
Free? Please explain this to my Lagosian eyes.
LOL. It was their culture. Whenever you went into a store they’d hand you a pet-sized bottle of juice. Maybe it had to do with being a foreigner. I drank juice tire sha. And the hospital stuffed me with milk at least four times a day because I needed the calcium.
It sounds like you had a pretty good time considering you were there for risky surgery
Being sad wasn’t going to change anything. The best thing to do was eat the free food and enjoy the city. I was cleared to leave after two weeks, but we stayed an extra two or three days because my mum’s passport was seized at the hospital.
Yeah, Nigeria was refusing to let our money clear. My cousins in the UK and US sent money as well, but it didn’t reflect. The hospital could see we’d tried to pay, so they kept my mum’s passport while they waited to receive the funds.
That’s crazy stuff. How were you doing post-surgery though?
I gained a lot of weight. Of course, the food had something to do with it. But because I had just done surgery on my spine, I wasn’t active. For six months, I couldn’t play rugby like I used to in school or move around too much.
What did you do with the six months of inactivity?
JAMB lessons. The year I went for the surgery cut into my time for JAMB and WAEC. Not getting into school with my friends really got to me. But my mum wanted me to be useful to myself and forced me to focus on writing the exams. Eventually, things got better.
First, I was taller. The surgery straightened the bones of my back to an extent.
Nice. And the second part?
I eventually got into uni when I was 15. But there was a strike in federal universities right before I was meant to resume, so I had to stay home. I got a job as a cashier and an assistant at a pharmacy close to my house. I didn’t want to be stuck at home doing nothing all over again. And being good at the job made me feel validated and important.
That’s really sweet
Yeah. Uni was also a pretty good experience for me. I got a full scholarship for my whole degree and that boosted the way I saw myself. I felt smart, and I hadn’t felt that way in a long time.
No one tells you how difficult it is to be held back because you’re sick. I gained so much weight from all the food in India and the rest period too. It really fucked up my psyche. The medications added to how much my body changed, so I know it’s out of my control.
Hm. What parts of life are you looking forward to in your 20s?
Retiring at 35. I’ve been working since I was 14. After the pharmacy job, I wrote non-fictional stories about the people I met. I got a job as a writer when I was 18, and I’ve worked my way up to being a junior editor since then.
So after all that work, I can’t retire like other people at 60. The corporate world shouldn’t have that much of my life.
LOL. I feel like everyone says this, but it’ll eventually get really boring having that much free time at 35
LOL. Going through surgery makes you realise just how much life has to offer. And I want to live a full life. I want to dance, sing, teach, travel and live as many lives as possible. It doesn’t have to be a long life for me; it just has to be full.