THE compelling story about the ordeal suffered by two Nigerians, Ajima and Susan Ogbole, who sought medical care at AZ Sint Jan in Belgium, has caught the attention and sympathy of the media, human rights activists and the public in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world -except the western European country where the grave injustice took place.
Ajima had been diagnosed with multiple uterine fibroids which were limiting her chances of becoming a mother, something she had always wanted. She opted to have a myomectomy done to remove the fibroids so she and her husband Williams could finally become parents.
However, the journey to parenthood took more twists and turns than they had envisaged. Ajima lost her cervix during a laparoscopy operation in 2017 that was done after the myomectomy, which she said neither she nor her husband consented to, leaving her permanently unable to have her own children, except through surrogacy.
Recounting her experience during a press briefing held via Zoom on Tuesday, Ajima said the doctor who performed the botched medical procedure had informed her that there was no difference between a cervix and fibroid.
Three months later, the hospital reached out to her through a letter admitting negligence and with a promise to make restitution and initiate insurance claims for her and her family.
“Due to this error, I had to come to terms with the reality that I will not get pregnant naturally nor artificially because the connection between my cervix and vagina was gone and my best option to bearing a child is through surrogacy,” Ajima said.
However, the new reality that she would never conceive and carry a pregnancy left her brokenhearted, even though she tried to remain strong and hopeful in the face of hopelessness. She later underwent two failed surgery attempts to reconstruct her cervix. Doctors told her there had been no breakthrough on that area of medicine.
“I had to undergo a cervix reconstructive surgery at UZ Gent, a procedure that had never been successfully done in medical history with the aim of pregnancy and another reconstructive surgery at the University of Ghent after six months, making this my fourth surgery in two years due to the negligent act of AZ Sint-Jan hospital. Sadly, the surgeries were both unsuccessful with the aim of a pregnancy,” she explained.
Ajima and Williams then considered surrogacy as the only option left to having their own children. In Belgium, commercial surrogacy is illegal, altruistic surrogacy is legal, but there is only one hospital taking in couples and there are extremely strict rules to get in.
According to Belgian law, the woman who gives birth is the legal mother of the child and the only option left for Ajima will be to file for adoption of the child after two months.
Determined to become a mother, Ajima took the option, bringing Susan into the picture. Susan is the wife of Ajima’s younger brother AJ, who already had two children of her own. Taking Ajima as the older sister she never had, Susan said love for her sister-in-law compelled her to become a surrogate when studies took her to Belgium.
After reaching the decision, they came down to Nigeria to have the baby implanted in Susan after AZ Sint Jan reneged on its promise to carry out the embryo transfer without any explanation. The process was successfully done in Nigeria and they returned to Belgium. Susan had a healthy pregnancy and in October 2020, delivered a healthy baby girl to whom Ajima and Williams gave the name ‘Imani,’ which means ‘Hope’ or ‘Faith’ in Swahili.
During labour, nurses and midwives at AZ Sint Jan, who handled the delivery, injected her with epidural, an anaesthetic that effectively blocked the pain from labour contractions during childbirth. This was after assuring her it was best for her .
However, the joy of the new parents was turned into gloom when it was discovered the next day that Susan had become paralysed from waist down, possibly due to the epidural she was given.
Reacting to the excruciating pain she felt during the administration of the epidural, Susan said the midwives told her that she was feeling so much pain because “it is a good epidural.”
In response to a question raised by our reporter on why Susan opted to have their baby in the same hospital that stole her right to carry her own pregnancies, Ajima explained regretfully that “the hospital is the closest to our home and they doctor who admitted negligence in my case reached out and apologised.”
“No Belgium hospital was willing to give us the opportunity for surrogacy. He assured us that he would see to her safe delivery. We believed that the hospital would not let us down again. If we could turn back the hands of time, we would have done differently,” she added.
Six months after the birth of her daughter via surrogacy, Ajima has been unable to file for her adoption. She explained that Susan’s residence permit would expire in October this year and if she relinquished ownership of Imani too soon and returned to Nigeria, she would have fewer chances of getting the justice she deserved.
The conspiracy of silence in the Belgium media and public
Ajima and her husband have called out the Belgium media over what they described as a conspiracy of silence since their story broke out.
They alleged that all the media organisations contacted refused to use their platforms to amplify their demand for justice. The Belgium media had no representation during Tuesday’s press conference which had over 50 participants in attendance from across the world.
Williams confirmed that Belgium’s constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press. Belgians have free access to the Internet and freedom of assembly, yet only two of William’s friends have shared the story since it became public Much of the support they have received have come mainly from Nigeria and other parts of the world.
Article 19 of the Belgian Constitution guarantees the freedom to demonstrate one’s opinions on all matters, but with a caveat that “offences committed when this freedom is used may be punished.”
Article 25 further states that “The press is free; censorship can never be introduced; no security can be demanded from authors, publishers or printers. When the author is known and resident in Belgium, neither the publisher, the printer nor the distributor can be prosecuted.”
It is not immediately clear why the Belgium media has chosen to remain silent on this matter that is already taking a global dimension with the #JusticeforAjimaandSusan hashtag already going viral on the Internet space.
We Want Justice – Family
Ajima is happy to finally have her daughter Imani, but she still seeks justice for herself and Susan.. According to her, “the legal system in Belgium is set up to protect doctors instead of patient-victims,” while sharing in passing the experience of another African from Cameroon who lost her sight in the same hospital where she underwent surgery for an eye problem.
“We will not accept the way that we have been treated and we will fight for justice, justice that this family deserves,” said her husband Williams.
He said at the press conference that the journey to getting justice, which began since 2018 when they discovered Ajima’s cervix had been arbitrarily cut off, was slow and accused the hospital of threatening them with lawsuit for speaking out.
The family has written to the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the country’s embassy in Belgium. Letters have also been sent to the offices of the Vice President and Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM).
In the letter addressed to the ministry, which was seen by The ICIR, the family is demanding that AZ Sint Jan hospital accept that it committed medical errors in Susan’s case and publish a letter of unreserved apology in three national dailies in Belgium.
The family is asking the Belgian hospital to take full responsibility for Susan’s treatments and stop sending medical bills to them. They are also demanding payment of €5 million each to both Susan and Ajima as damages for the irreparable damage done to them.
They also want the Belgian government to grant the immediate family members of Susan and Ajima essential visas upon application to enable family members provide the much-needed care and comfort to both traumatised women.