Fabian Udekwu : Pioneer of Open Heart Surgery in Sub-Saharan Africa


In January 1974, history was made in the medical profession in sub-Saharan Africa when a team of Nigerian surgeons carried out the first open heart surgery at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Enugu. This remarkable surgical operation was spearheaded by Prof. Fabian Udekwu and Sir Magdi Yacoub (Egyptian-British citizen). It was performed on a 19-year-old man who presented with a history of dyspnoea, chest pains and fatigue, and was in heart failure.

After several hours of operation, the heart failure was reversed and the patient survived. Following the extraordinary feat, Udekwu led further open heart surgeries on six patients at UNTH between 1974 and 1980.

Udekwu was, indeed, Nigeria’s first fully certified cardiothoracic surgeon. He taught as a distinguished professor of surgery at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. He was a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, the International College of Surgeons and the West African College of Surgeons. He was also a founding member and Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science, and has several publications to his credit.

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Background and education:

Fabian Anene Ositadimma  Udekwu was born in 1928 in Enugu-Agidi, Anambra State, Nigeria. He attended St. Charles Teachers Training College Onitsha, where he was retained as a faculty member after graduation in 1947, teaching mathematics and geography. He did his London Matriculation Exams by correspondence and after having saved enough money, he proceeded in 1950 to the United States for further studies.

Udekwu did his pre-medical studies in Biology, Chemistry and Physics in Los Angeles. Subsequently, he attended Loyola University Chicago (Stritch School of Medicine), graduating as a medical doctor in 1957 and specialising in general cardiac and thoracic surgery in 1964. He did his surgical training at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

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After his training at Cook County Hospital, USA, Udekwu returned to Nigeria  in 1965 where he began his career in the civil service as paediatric thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon at the University College Hospital of the University of Ibadan. He fled Ibadan to Biafra at the outbreak of hostilities that marked the beginning of the Nigeria-Biafra war.

Prof Fabian Udekwu

From 1967, he served as a military surgeon and head of the Biafran Teaching Hospital in various locations, including Enugu and Emekukwu during the war. He was also the secretary to the Biafran Relief and Rehabilitation Association during the war.

After the civil war, Udekwu was appointed head of department of surgery of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Teaching Hospital (UNTH) and was the administrative head of the Enugu campus of the university.

Udekwu is credited with building the department of surgery of the University of Nigeria. After several unsuccessful attempts at sourcing funds to establish a modern surgical department from many organisations in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and through church aid, he was able to scrape together funding from the Enugu campus, aided by the contributions of individual Nigerians, to build the operating theatre and buy the equipment needed to establish facilities for open heart surgery in Nigeria. He was one of the pioneers of cardiac surgery in Nigeria.

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Personal life

Udekwu was an avid sportsman, playing football and tennis throughout his life. He was a member of the Enugu Sports Club. He also played music as a hobby, attaining notability as the organist and choirmaster at the Holy Ghost Cathedral Enugu. Udekwu was married to Anna Brita. The marriage was blessed with ten children.

Udekwu passed away on 17 November 2006 in Uppsala, Sweden, at the age of 78.



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