By Sarah Kessler – Dr. Ronke Desalu, an Associate Professor and Consultant in Anaesthesia at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, handles a full caseload of teaching, research and paediatric anaesthesia. She is pleased you’re able to see her photo – she’s had a run of uncooperative Internet days in Lagos, Nigeria. But, it’s not the internet connection that concerns her, more importantly, she’s braced against one of the most under-acknowledged global health crises of the decade: lack of access to safe surgery, which threatens millions of lives each year.

The maternal mortality rate in Nigeria is estimated at around 600 per 100,000 births (17/100,000 in the U.S.), and access to safe surgery is essential for saving hundreds of thousands of lives lost to this outrageous and unnecessary statistic. But, often surgery is a challenge to access and a risk to undergo. Women die of obstructed labour, of uncontrollable bleeding, or of a ruptured uterus far from hospital.

For International Women’s Day, Lifebox Foundation, a global health charity, has brought together women from around the world to share their perspective on this crisis. What it looks like, what it means, why basic life-saving techniques are still unavailable to so many, and what women like Dr. Desalu are doing about it.

Meet Dr. Ronke Desalu

Ronke Desalu_largerWhy is access to surgery essential for women’s health?

RD: A third of the 4500 surgeries performed at my hospital in Lagos last year were related to women’s reproductive health. This is a substantial percentage for one ‘special group,’ and emphasizes the importance of ready access to safe surgery for women.

Yet not all women are lucky to get this professional treatment.

Why did you become an anaesthetist?

RD: I always wanted to be a doctor, even as a young girl growing up in Lagos in the 1960s. With two aunties showing that women were just as capable as men, and could be doctors, my mind was made up.

I’m passionate about helping the vulnerable and the sick, and it gives me great satisfaction to see the outcome and the value one person’s actions can have on another person.

Can you tell us about one of your most memorable cases?

RD: I’m in a profession that has its fair share of risks, but I like to look on the positive side of my work, the good we do and the relief we bring.

Many  years ago we treated a 5-year-old child with a large cycstic hygroma [a growth that appears on a baby’s neck]. The surgery was difficult, and afterwards she was unable to breathe on her own. We admitted her to our intensive care unit, which didn’t have a functioning ventilator at the time. The trainees and technicians took turns to manually ventilate her for 100 days.

The case emphasizes the importance of teamwork, perseverance – and above all, commitment to your patient.

What is the government doing to reduce maternal mortality?

RD: In the last six years, the Lagos state government opened six specialized Maternal and Child Health hospitals, with full surgical facilities. This means more theatres, more surgeries, more training and better health service delivery.

What is the role of women in the surgical ecosystem?

RD: Safe surgery is tied up with the socio-economic status, political participation and education of women. We need to support groups that advocate for women’s health issues – women shouldn’t have to travel such long distances for basic care.

“I take as one of my critical roles in life, to uplift and raise the bar for young women.” To show them that it is indeed possible to have both a happy home front and a sky that is the limit in their career.

What is your goal for women in the medical profession? 

RD: I want them to realize that they’re part of a unique team. Many organisations assume that women can’t cope with the top positions and we need to change that mindset. We need to be amongst the counted when it comes to doing our job well.

Women need to be fully involved in the implementation and management of healthcare, as well as in the policy and mapping of future health plans for their community – and indeed the world.

About The Contributor

Sarah is Head of Outreach at Lifebox Foundation, a global health charity working to make surgery safer in low-resource countries worldwide. She blogs at

To read more stories and join the conversation about unsafe surgery, visit Make It Zero.