Dr Thomas Tontie Baah Founder Of Save The Nation’s Sight Clinic My Childhood
My life history is quite fascinating, perplexing and often mystifying. A series of things have happened to me that seem inexplicable. Some invisible force seems to have been guiding and leading me along my journey of life. I believe that this invisible force is GOD ALMIGHTY. I give praise and glory to HIM for being my guide, supporter, protector and enabler.
I was born in Bujan about 12 miles from Tumu in the Sissala East District of the Upper West Region of Ghana. There are no records of my birth. A traditional birth attendant assisted at my delivery. I was born small for date and frail. According to my mother no one expected me to survive. My father was a distinguished hunter and my mother, a dutiful house wife. My father was short and stout with a huge chest. He literally bubbled with enormous energy. He was probably disappointed with me, a frail little boy who lacked the muscles and the physique to take after his physically challenging profession. He wisely sent me to school believing that I was not physically endowed to take after the family’s rich heritage of distinguished hunters.
A school under trees was started in 1964 in my village. In 1966 I was enrolled in class one in the school. I know for certain the year I started school but I do not know when exactly I was born. I have always assumed that I was six years old at the time I started school. If that is the case then I was born in 1960. I have used 1960 as the year of my birth in all my documents. It is very possible that I was born in 1961.
I attended the school under trees for three years. My father came to the village and was not so pleased with my condition. He sent me to Tumu to live with my aunt and attend school. My father was an itinerant hunter. He moved from village to village for his hunting expeditions. My mother went along with him. After class 2, I never had the privilege to live with my biological parents for up to a month. I saw them occasionally for brief periods when they returned home usually for a funeral or some other important business.
Throughout my childhood, I walked on my bare feet to school often on an empty stomach. During break periods, I sat in the classroom because I had no pocket money with me. Life was harsh and difficult. .I learnt to cope with it.
A Defining Moment
My mother returned to Bujan with a little baby girl, her seventh born. I was then in class six. When the school was on vacation, I went to the village and stayed with my mum and little sister. She was just about one year old. I played with her during the vacation. We became used to each other. When the holidays were over, I returned to Tumu to go to school. I missed my little sister and mum greatly.
On one fateful Saturday afternoon, my mum came to Tumu with my little sister. She had walked the 12 miles journey with the baby on her back. The baby was very sick. She had difficulty in breathing. She was suffering from measles complicated with broncho-pneumonia. She recognized me. She would look at me wanting to smile but she was too ill to do anything. I accompanied my mum to the only health center in the town. The Medical Assistant had travelled. It was a weekend and the nurses closed early. There was no one to attend to us. The big hospitals with doctors were at Navrongo, Bolgatatanga, Jirapa and Wa. The roads to these towns were dusty, unpaved and riddled with numerous potholes. It required 4 hours of driving to get to any of these towns. Besides, my mother did not have the means to pay for the cost of transportation to any of these big towns.
We walked to a sister’s convent. Two Catholic nuns came out to attend to us. All that they could offer to the severely sick child were a few tablets of Paracetamol and Chloroquine. My mother mashed these tablets in a spoon and mixed them with water for the poor little girl to drink. A few hours later, my little sister gave up the ghost. She passed on into eternity. I cried and cried and grieved for days and weeks. Young as I was, I concluded rightly that my sister died needlessly from lack of adequate medical care. I resolved then that I wanted to become a doctor. Anytime anyone asked me what I wanted to become in future, I said that I wanted to become a doctor. It seemed to many then a fanciful and whimsical childhood dream which seemed unattainable for a poorly nourished little boy who walked on his bare feet to school. I was then aged twelve and in class six. Where there is a will though, there is always a way.
In Middle School Form 2, I passed the Common Entrance Examinations. I gained admission into Navrongo Secondary School in 1974. It was an opportunity for me to leave my village for the first time. I was one of the smallest and youngest of my year group. I was quiet, obedient, determined, focused and hardworking. I liked the secondary school. For the first time in my life, I was regularly fed with three meals a day. Many of my contemporaries preferred to be in school rather than to go on vacation. At home, only the evening meal was guaranteed for many families.
At the Ordinary Level Examinations in 1979, I obtained distinction and proceeded to Ghana Secondary Technical School (GSTS) in Takoradi in 1979. I attended Lower Sixth Form throughout the whole year. I missed the entire first term of the Upper Sixth Form. I was taken ill shortly before school reopened. I was brought to my village for traditional herbal treatment. I went back to school when the second term reopened. However, I was unable to attend normal classes. Even so, I studied on my own. I loved to teach myself. I wrote the Advanced level examinations and surprised my classmates by obtaining sufficiently good grades to enter medical school.
A Junior Student Purchased My University Form
The Sixth Form students had junior students assigned to them. The junior students washed our dresses and ironed them for us. Often, I had no money to buy soap for him to wash my items. The student who served me understood my predicament. He would provide his own soap and wash my things. When the university forms were being sold, I had no money to buy one. He paid for my university form. There have been many acts of kindness and generosity towards me by various people. I CANNOT and WILL NOT fail to show acts of kindness and generosity to others who genuinely need it from me.
Unusual Interview And Admission Into Medical School
Destiny leads the willing but often drags the unwilling. After the Advanced Level Examinations, I returned to my village. I was in Tumu when the results were released. A list of names of students who had applied for admission to medical school was published in the Daily Graphic. The students were asked to report to the medical school for interview. Communication was very poor in those days. Newspapers took days or weeks to get to Tumu. Someone travelled to Tumu with some old newspapers. Someone else saw my name among the list of students invited for medical school interview. He came to show the paper to me. The date of the interview had passed. Nevertheless, I decided to go to the medical school to find out if they would still consider me for admission or not. My father, who had then retired from active hunting, gave me lorry fare to undertake the trip to Kumasi. I first came to Bolgatanga and passed the night with my elder brother. The following morning, I was at the State Transport Corporation (STC) station waiting to buy a ticket to Kumasi.
I was with one of my step brothers. We met Alhaji Hamidu Sulemana at the station. He was then a student at KNUST. He engaged us in a conversation. He got to know that I had missed the medical school interview through no fault of mine. He referred me to see Professor Mahama Duwiejuah, then a post graduate student at the Faculty of Pharmacy. He was still staying on campus though the university was on vacation.
I came to Kumasi and went to Katanga Hall and found Professor Mahama Duwiejuah. It was my first time of meeting him. We speak the same native language.
I narrated to him my plight. Without any hesitation, he walked with me from Katanga Hall to the medical school. We first met with the school’s secretary. She told us that they had finished with the admissions. Indeed, a list of names of students offered admission was on the notice board. There was not much she could do. It was then that Prof Mahama Duwiejuah went into the Dean’s office. Not long afterwards he came out with a very tall white gentleman, Professor E.H.O. Parry, the then Dean of the Medical School. He asked me a series of questions. When he finished, he removed the sheet of paper containing a list of names of students admitted into the medical school. The names were all printed with a type writer. With a pen, Professor Parry added my name to the list. He signed his signature by it. He put the Dean’s stamp by my name sealing my admission into medical school as though divinely occasioned. My childhood dream of pursuing a career in medicine was thus fulfilled.
In October 1981, I got admitted into the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology School of Medical Sciences (KNUST SMS) to pursue my childhood dream of wanting to become a doctor. In September of 1988, I completed my medical studies. The University was closed down for one year during the tumultuous era of a military dictatorship. I spent six months each at the departments of Medicine, Paediatrics, Surgery and Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, Kumasi. I was then due for posting to a district hospital. I was first posted to Nandom Hospital in the Upper West Region and later to Wa, the Regional Hospital. I declined the postings. I came to Accra to see the Head of the Department of Health of the National Catholic Secretariat.
I told her that I was prepared to go and work in any of the Catholic Hospitals in Ghana should there be a vacancy anywhere. I went back to Kumasi. I got a call after several weeks asking me to come to Nsawam to meet the Head of the Department of Health of the Archdiocese of Cape Coast to discuss a vacancy in a hospital in the Central Region. I came to Accra and met the late Mr. Sarsah. He drove me to Breman Asikuma to see the Our Lady of Grace Hospital. It was a small neat and cute hospital. It had a heavy work load. There was only one doctor then from the Netherlands, Dr JJE Timmers. Spanish Reverend Sisters managed the hospital. I was impressed with the hospital. I decided to come and do 3 months of locum under the doctor after which I would come back on permanent transfer. Dr Timmers was a very thorough and detailed doctor. She made a lasting impression on me.
In October of 1991, I came back to Breman Asikuma on transfer. I worked closely with Dr Timmers until early January 1992. She left for good to the Netherlands. To date I have maintained close contacts with her. After her departure, I was left alone to manage a very busy district hospital. I became the Jack of all trades performing Caesarian Sections, Ectopic pregnancies, Strangulated hernias, typhoid perforations, laparatomies, etc.
I had a very busy time at the Our Lady of Grace Hospital. I worked with great passion, dedication and commitment. My work at the Our Lady of Grace Hospital was very fulfilling and satisfying. Even so, I had an inner call to do something else, something different.
Career In Ophthalmology
After three years of dedicated services at the Our Lady of Grace Hospital, I left to pursue a career in Ophthalmology. The decision to pursue a career in ophthalmology was perhaps, dictated by my early childhood experiences of living with a blind uncle. He had gone blind long before I was born. As a child, he would call me and ask me to lead him to visit the toilet or to attend meetings of village elders at which he represented our family. Living with him and experiencing the plight of blind people at a very early age may have influenced me to pursue a career in ophthalmology.
My Training In Ophthalmology
Through the intervention of the Head of the Eye Unit of the Ghana Health Service, I obtained a Ministry of Health sponsorship and was part of the second batch of DO trainees of the West African Postgraduate Medical College. We had three months of intensive lectures at the University College Hospital in Ibadan. We were then posted in the third quarter of 1994 to high volume surgical centres for hands-on practical training in eye surgery. Fortuitously, my initial posting was to the Eye Clinic of the Presbyterian Hospital, Agogo. Dr Klaus Ellendorff (a German) was then the ophthalmologist in-charge. He took special interest in my training. We have remained great friends ever since. I have also trained under different ophthalmologists at different times for varying periods ranging from three months to six months under Dr David Eddyshaw (Scottish), Dr Pietro Angeletti (Italian) and Dr James P. Guzek (American).
Survived A Tragic Accident
Shortly after passing my DO examinations in late 1995, I decided to make a trip to Obuasi with my junior brother. He, unfortunately was not sent to school. I went with him to Obuasi with the aim of helping to secure a job for him in the mines. I was driving a Toyota Corolla saloon car. We got involved in a head-on collision with an over-loaded taxi with seven passengers and several bags of cement in the booth. Two passengers died at the spot. I was also presumed to be dead at the spot according to my junior brother. We were transported to the Ashanti Goldfields Hospital in Obuasi, where it was determined that I was rather unconscious. I regained consciousness after two days but remained a bit confused and disoriented for many months.
In September of 1996 I got a chance to go to London to pursue a course in Community Ophthalmology at the International Center for Eye Health. Dr Mrs Maria Hagan, Professor Allen Foster and Dr Klaus Ellendorff played different roles in helping to obtain for me the scholarship. I did a Master of Science program in Community Eye Health. Professor Allen Foster was the supervisor for my dissertation. I returned to Ghana in September of 1997 and was posted to Our Lady of Grace (OLG) Hospital in Breman Asikuma to start a new eye clinic. I accepted to go back to Breman Asikuma on the advice of Professor Allen Foster with promises to help. He has largely fulfilled all his promises to me.
A New Eye Clinic Is Born At Breman Asikuma
I started an eye clinic with two enrolled nurses at the Our Lady of Grace Hospital in Breman Asikuma. Subsequently two nurses from the hospital were trained as ophthalmic nurses. Professor Allen Foster provided the first set of OPD and ophthalmic surgical equipment including cataract sets which I started my career in ophthalmology with.
In the beginning, the attendance to the clinic was low. In order to increase awareness of the new clinic to people in the neighbouring villages I put a public address system on my rehabilitated Toyota saloon car that I had an accident with. My two nurses and I would see patients in the morning at the clinic and in the afternoon, we would go to a surrounding village to announce to the inhabitants that there was now an eye clinic in Breman Asikuma. Patients with eye problems should come to the Our Lady of Grace Hospital for treatment.
With time we realised that we could go to more distant locations on Saturdays and on public holidays to screen patients, sell reading glasses and eye medications to the patients. We soon realised that it was a very rewarding exercise. We made additional income for ourselves through these outreaches. I was very generous with the nurses. All the nurses were always keen to go on outreach with me. At the outreaches, we referred patients who needed surgery to the hospital. The attendance and surgeries at the eye clinic started to rise. The hospital benefitted from our outreach activities. Before long the Our Lady of Grace Hospital became a reputable center for high-volume cataract surgery. It was accredited for training DO doctors in cataract surgery. Christoffel Blinden Mission (CBM) of Germany donated money that was used to build a two-storey hostel for trainee doctors and nurses in the hospital. Ironically, the Management of the OLG hospital refused to lend me money to continue with my building project in Accra.
Several attempts were made to get us to rather go and sell the hospital’s medicines and reading glasses on the outreaches. I refused with the reason that we did these outreaches at our spare time, on weekends and on public holidays when we should be resting with our families. It does not make economic sense to me to work for your employer at your free time instead of working for yourself. In any case our outreaches benefitted the hospital. The hospital authorities and the Catholic hierarchy in the Archdiocese of Cape Coast were unable to convince me to heed to their demands. They left the matter to rest.
The Introduction Of A National Health Insurance Scheme
In the year 2007, a nationwide National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) was rolled out by the then government in power. A client had to pay a fixed premium to belong to the scheme. A valid health insurance card entitled the client to basic health care in a clinic or hospital. The National Health Insurance pays for consultation, some prescribed medicines and some other procedures performed on the patient. In the beginning the NHIS was not properly streamlined. I exploited the situation. There was no criminal conduct on my part. What I did in the past was legitimate and acceptable then. Now, it is not.
The Beginning Of My Woes At The Old Hospital
We went on outreach to Besease, a nearby town on a Saturday. Most of the patients who came for screening had with them National Health Insurance Cards. We were then not accredited to see patients with National Health Insurance (NHI). We could only attend to a few patients who had no NHIS cards. I suddenly realised that the outreach program would be unsustainable if we were not able to see patients with NHI. I approached the NHI Scheme Managers of several Mutual Health Insurance Schemes in the Central Region and asked them if we could attend to their clients on our outreaches. One of them said, Dr Baah we have known you for doing these outreaches before the NHIS was introduced. He said that they were prepared to pay for my outreach services if that would make me continue to remain in the Central Region to provide services to their people. They cautioned me, however, that they would not be able to pay me with checks written in my personal name. The auditors would query them if checks are not written in the name of an institution or organisation. I was certain that I did not want checks to be written in the name of the Our Lady of Grace Hospital. It would create some misunderstanding.
Registration Of Breman Asikuma Rural Eye Program
I got Breman Asikuma Rural Eye Program (BAREP) officially registered at the Registrar General’s Department in Accra. I opened a bank account in the name of Breman Asikuma Rural Eye Program. I wanted outreaches done to rural communities to be paid for with checks from the NHIS written in the name of Breman Asikuma Rural Eye Program
The management of the hospital got to know about what I had done. The Hospital and the hierarchy of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cape Coast held a series of meetings with me. They wanted me to drop Breman Asikuma Rural Eye Program. They wanted me to hand over all the outreach claims to the hospital to be processed for payment. They promised to hand over all the outreach claims money to me without any deduction. I was very sceptical of their intentions. I refused to give in to their demands.
I had very good reasons not to believe them. Once bitten, twice shy. It is a long story which I do not intend to narrate here. These meetings were followed by a series of warning letters. I refused to give in. I did not use the hospital’s time to do the rural outreaches. Why then should I give the claims to the hospital to process them for payment? Why should the Hospital and the Catholic hierarchy in the Archdiocese of Cape Coast want to control the proceeds of outreaches which they did not organise? I was stubborn in my refusal. They threatened to remove me from their hospital if I failed to go by their directives. I obstinately refused to heed to directives that I believed were morally and ethically untenable.
The Establishment Of Save The Nation’s Sight Clinic
There was a long pause in meetings and threatening letters from the Management of the OLG Hospital and the Catholic Archdiocese of Cape Coast. I correctly perceived this not to be the end of the matter, an acceptance of the status quo. I started to prepare for any eventuality. I managed to get Save the Nation’s Sight Clinic registered in Accra. My uncompleted building in Accra would be used as my new clinic. I started the process to get the clinic accredited by the National Health Insurance Authority. Luck was on my side. I would have been completely messed up, disorganised and unsettled if I had not initiated these moves months before the dismissal letter was handed over to me. Indeed, if you fail to plan, you have planned for your failure.
Dismissal From The Our Lady Of Grace Hospital
I was not surprised when one Friday morning I was called to a meeting with the Reverend Sister In-charge and the Hospital’s administrator in the Sister’s office on the 24th of October 2008. I was handed a dismissal letter. No doubt, it was designed to hurt, destabilise, disorganise and perhaps, to permanently frustrate me. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That very Friday, I came to Accra to my wife and children. I had no slit lamp and no microscope of my own to start a clinic. I was pondering over what to do next. On Sunday morning, I managed to draft a response to the dismissal letter. On Monday, I returned to Breman Asikuma, and gave my response to the Reverend Sister In-charge. I started to move my things out of the bungalow which I had occupied for seventeen years.
Dr Thomas Tontie Baah
His Eminence, Peter Cardinal Appiah-Turkson, the Archbishop of Cape CoastMost Reverend Matthias K. Nketsiah, the Auxilliary Bishop of Cape CoastMr John Afful, Executive Secretary, Department of Health, Archdiocesan SecretariatReverend Sister Luisa Ruperez, Sister In-charge, Our Lady of Grace HospitalMr Stephen Tekyi-Ansah, the Health Services Administrator, Breman AsikumaThe Regional Director of Health Services, Cape CoastThe Head, Eye Unit, Ghana Health Service, AccraThe District Director of Health Services, Breman Asikuma
Going into private practice was never in my mind when I got admitted into medical school nearly forty years ago in 1981. Financial consideration was never a reason for pursuing a career in ophthalmology. I got into private practice by default. My dismissal from the Our Lady of Grace Hospital was a blessing in disguise. I am exceedingly grateful to the Almighty God and to all the many individuals and organisations who have supported me in diverse ways to establish Save the Nation’s Sight Clinic. Professor EHO Parry admitted me into medical school. Professor Allen Foster equipped me with the first set of cataract sets. This singular act by Professor Allen Foster enabled me to take after my father, a distinguished hunter but not with a gun but with a cataract set. My late Dad must be truly proud of me and is resting peacefully in his grave.