St Charles Borromeo Specialist Hospital Onitsha, Nigeria

Our History

How we began

 As the proverbial mustard seed, the idea of a first-rate modern hospital, ‘a general hospital that would deliver specialist healthcare in different disciplines of medicine,’ was, in the mid 1950s, conceived in the mind of the then Archbishop of Onitsha – Most Rev. Charles Heerey of blessed memory. This idea was buoyed by the perceived need of adequate healthcare for the rising population of Onitsha; and by the success of the endeavours in healthcare delivery in Annua, Emekuku, Ihiala, Adazi and Nsukka, and also the maternity services already flourishing at the Waterside.

Once the visionary Archbishop made his intentions known, there came opposition from different quarters. Fundamental to this resistance was the wonder on how and from where this gutted pastor of souls hoped to acquire the massive resources needed to realize this colossal project. The coldness exhibited to this at the ‘higher quarters’ did not help issues either. But the farsighted man of God would not be daunted. He began to search for an adequate site. This posed another problem. A site was promised within town but was later withdrawn. Some other sites were examined but found wanting. And years continued to roll by.

Fortune, however, smiled the way of the Archbishop after a patient wait of about seven years. Through the magnanimity of the late Justice Fred O. Anyaegbunam (then Barrister F. O. Anyaegbunam) and the IyaseleNsu family of Onitsha, a beautiful site just outside the town, overlooking the valley of Nkisi and the River Niger was donated for this project. As recorded in the hospital archives, ‘A more excellent site could not be found in the vicinity of Onitsha.’ The land was negotiated for the Archdiocese by the then Director of the All Hallows Seminary, Rev. Fr Godfrey Okoye (later Bishop G. M. P. Okoye). The long period of faithful wait was beginning to bear fruits!

The Long Journey Starts
With a beautiful site acquired, the concept of the hospital was to be concretely defined and the structure mapped out. To embark upon this, a planning committee made up of experienced doctors and an architect was formed. Working on the vision to build a standard specialist hospital providing specialised care in different branches of medicine, they gathered information from far and wide, and notably visited the modern University College Hospital at Ibadan to sharpen their ideas. With a clear vision of what was needed, the architect got to work and came out with a remarkably beautiful design. This was in the early 1960s.

Sourcing Funds
After the joyful euphoria of an exquisite site and a beautiful architectural plan, the reality of funding the project dawned. In 1961, a contractual agreement for constructing the hospital major block, valued at £57,000.00 was signed with Messrs Dolcino& Co., Port-Harcourt. Finding such an amount of money seemed a mission impossible. But the Archbishop placed his trust totally on divine providence.

The first task was to search within. The Archbishop set up a central committee made up of representatives from the four parishes in Onitsha then: Holy Trinity Cathedral, St Mary’s Parish Inland Town, Sacred Heart Parish Odoakpuand Immaculate Heart Parish Fegge. The Committee was headed by Sir R. R. Olisa, the Atamanya Nzedegwu II of Osomalla while the Secretary was Chief J. Major-Azike. The Parish Priests of the four parishes were ex-officio members of the Committee. Each Parish had its own committee also. The first meeting of the central committee was headed by the Archbishop himself. Briefed on the need for this health facility, those present made donations amounting to thousands of pounds to the Archbishop to begin the execution of the project. However, the same fervour could not be communicated to the faithful at parish levels. This was made more difficult by the fact that the parishes were executing different projects within their parishes, and the parishioners were, understandably, more inclined to the execution of their parish project than to the Borromeo Hospital vision. Nevertheless the committee kept the ideals high and created strategies to raise funds. Added to this, half of the bazaar proceeds for the parishes from 1961 to 1963 were directed to the realisation of the Borromeo project. Though dogged, the committee did not achieve the level of success that was dreamt of.

Within this state of affairs, Archbishop Heerey turned his gaze overseas. The responses to his appeals sent to different parts of the globe were remarkably generous. In August 1962, Cardinal Montini (later Pope Paul VI) visited Nigeria. He was deeply impressed by the fervour of the Catholic faithful in Onitsha and got quite enthusiastic about the Borromeo Hospital Project which was underway, making a very generous donation of £4,500.00. It is worthy of note here that when he later ascended the papacy, he did not cease to demonstrate his affection for Onitsha, its Archbishop and the Borromeo Project. This love was further exhibited when the Holy Father directed the charity of an Italian lady – SignoraSichorollo of Milan – to this project. The lady’s donation of £5,700.00 was the highest individual contribution from overseas.

The Misereor organisation deserves a special mention here. This organisation which provide aids for projects in developing countries, run by the bishops of the then West Germany, agreed to supply most of the equipment for the new hospital. The equipment donated amounted to £34,000.00 while the accompanying cash donation was £26,000.00. The hospital remains grateful to the German Catholics who contributed this fund and to all other donors both from within and from outside the country.

Once the determined Archbishop had some money in his coffers, he swung into action. As noted above, the contractual agreement for constructing the hospital major block was signed in 1961. By the end of April 1962, the sod was already turned and work progressed tremendously. By the time Cardinal Montini visited later that year, the massive two-storey building had reached the roofing stage. Work continues to progress till January 1964 when the main building was completed. It was a magnificent three-floor structure with cantilevers at the upper storeys. This building still stands in glamour today!

Next to be constructed was the Out-Patients Department. This was to be a series of bungalows to house the consulting & waiting rooms, the pharmacy, the laboratory, the X-ray room, and so on. This series of buildings was completed in May 1964. Worthy of note and praise here is Rev. Fr J. Keane, the then Vicar General of the Archdiocese. On behalf of the Archbishop, he was the one who personally negotiated the contracts and supervised the constructions from the turning of the sod till the completion of constructions. Painstakingly, he supervised the works, carefully did the necessary correspondences and meticulously gave account of every penny that was voted for the project. To him, the hospital owes a debt of gratitude.

Also worthy of mention here is Sr Mary Cyprain. She was then the matron of the Holy Rosary Hospital at the Waterside. From there she contributed in all the way she could to make the Borromeo project a reality. From our archives, “By her self-sacrificing joyous charity to all in Onitsha without distinction…, she epitomised the spirit of the Catholic Hospital and made its need more felt and the demand for it more imperative.” This noble religious woman died in a motor accident before the Borromeo dream could be realised. In her memory, the officers of the then multi-racial Onitsha sports club instituted aSrCyprain Memorial fund with which they purchased a mobile x-ray unit for the hospital.

Teething Problems & Gradual Opening
With constructions completed and equipment procured, the next important task was to provide efficient management and adequate manpower for the hospital. The onus of management fell on the Holy Rosary Sisters who had engaged in healthcare delivery in Eastern Nigeria since 1930. They had a record of devotion and service, and had the confidence of the populace. From the congregation came a brilliant Sister doctor, an acknowledged expert in hospital administration, who took months of detailed planning to set the hospital at its feet and organise the equipment.

In the evening of June 5, 1964, Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Archbishop Charles Heerey celebrated holy Mass in the front corridor of the main building and blessed the edifices. The people who were gathered in their numbers for this occasion were given the opportunity to go around and inspect the facility. They thrilled with pride and gratitude for what they saw. The hospital doors were however closed as visitors left that evening. A lot was yet to be done in setting the place up, manpower was needed, and the supply of power and water still posed a problem.

On November 4, 1964, Feast of St Charles Borromeo, two religious women: Sr Chrysostom and SrAuxilia came in. They lived at the top floor of the main building and, with the help of a skeletal staff of nurses and others, continued putting things in place. Then, a house built by the Archbishop further up the hill, but not yet occupied, was renovated for the religious women. Later, Dumez Construction Company, through the magnanimity of the manager, Mr Berberian, came in with their bulldozer and gave the compound a facelift.

Finally, on Dec 16, 1964, the door of the huge waiting hall of the OPD was thrown open for patients. There were two Sister-Doctors in attendance. However, admitting patients into the wards had to be shifted to the first week of January, 1965.

Then, on the 16th day of January, 1965, to the glory of God and the joy of all and sundry, the hospital was officially opened by the then minister of health in the Eastern Nigerian Government, Hon B. C. Okwu, in a well-attended and glamorous ceremony. This opening ceremony, as recorded in our archives, “is but a public announcement solemnly made, that the hospital is a pulsating, living thing, that its doors are open to all who would seek relief from their sufferings in the atmosphere of Christian charity and kindness.”

It must be pointed out here that in establishing this great hospital, Archbishop Heerey was not establishing a money-yielding facility. Rather, the reality of this hospital comes from the concern of this great pastor for the healthcare of his flock. And so, ab initio, he desired and established a non-profit-oriented hospital that would provide the best possible healthcare to all without discrimination.

Early Years
The responsibility of administering the hospital at inception was given to the Holy Rosary Sisters who, as stated above, were reputed to be experienced and successful in this apostolate across Eastern Nigeria. The first matron was Sr M. Chrysostom HRS, who with SrAuxilliaHRS, assembled a team of workers, medical and paramedical, for the delicate task of healthcare delivery. Facilitated by the Archbishop himself, Sr Dr Mary Lucy came in from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Ihiala. Also, Dr Porrua was among the earliest doctors to work in the hospital.
After the official opening of the hospital, some other construction works continued. A ramp was constructed for the main building and a mortuary was also constructed. These were blessed by the Archbishop by August 1965. Meanwhile, the inflow of patients into the hospital was very encouraging and continued to grow. It is on record that, some of the days, the hospital had about 400 out-patients! The patients testified to the cordial and collaborative spirit of the hospital staff.
Quite memorable at this point is that Archbishop Heerey got sick in 1966. After the diagnosis of a terminal illness and assessing some treatment in Europe, he came back to Nigeria and, in January, 1967, he was admitted into his cherished Borromeo Hospital – a hospital he conceived and saw to its execution. He slept in the Lord in the hospital on Tuesday 7 February, 1967 and was buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral on Thursday, 9 February, 1967.

The Civil War Tragedy and Reconstructions
In July 1967, the Nigeria Civil War broke out. This conflict affected the young growing hospital very adversely. As Onitsha town was a major target of the Nigerian forces, the location of the hospital made it a choice site for missile launch. The hospital had to be moved, but there was not enough time to dismantle and evacuate just-installed equipment in various units. They had to be abandoned. The best that could happen was to evacuate patients. Through the period of hostilities, the hospital could be described as a theatre of war. It turned out to be a mass grave for many. At the end of the war in January 1970, the hospital was simply ghostly. The sight was discouraging. The future looked gloomy!
In such situation, a combination of courage and charisma is needed to spur people to action. And this rare combination was demonstrated by Archbishop Francis Arinze (now Francis Cardinal Arinze) who had taken over from Archbishop Heerey as the Archbishop of Onitsha and Proprietor of the hospital just before the onset of war in 1967. Squarely, he took the bull by the horns. Naturally, one would not expect to raise funds from people coming from the devastation of war. To make matters worse, there came the Bank Moratorum Decree of 1970 which provided that any depositor in any bank would be paid £20.00, no matter how much was deposited. The Archbishop thus turned his solicitation for funds overseas. He made a detailed and touching analysis of the situation and stated what was needed to turn the moribund hospital around. Responses were really favourable. The OXFAM (England), Misereor (Germany) and German Caritas organisations merit recognition here. There were other generous donors.
At the site, people were galvanised to begin clearing the huge debris of war. This enthusiastic team of workers was led by Sr M. Chrysostom Okoye IHM. The task of clearing the site of all sorts of debris, including decomposing bodies, was by no means an easy task. By a dint of hardwork and determination, a substantial amount of reconstruction work had been done that by June 1970, a section of the hospital was opened to render medical services urgently needed to combat usual post-war epidemics. Meanwhile, reconstruction works continued. Sr M. Bride Njoku came in as Matron/Administrator later in the year to join the reconstruction efforts. Messrs Dolcino& Co. who constructed the main building was engaged again for the reconstruction of the same. One Anosike Construction company was also involved while Sir Joe Nwankwu Engineering Company reconstructed the Sisters’ quarters and also reconstructed the laboratory section gratis. The official reopening of the hospital after the war was in 1971. To help the administration of the hospital and other Archdiocesan hospitals, the Archbishop constituted a central Medical Advisory Council for the Archdiocese and a Management Board for each Archdiocesan hospital.
Gradually, the hospital returned to normalcy and the fame began to grow again. The medical team also grew. The first post-war doctor was Dr Ezekwesili. Soon after came some other doctors, medical and paramedical staff. Notable among the doctors are Dr Ogbukagu, Dr T. Menakaya and Dr Ibuzo. There were, however, difficulties in securing doctors locally as all foreign doctors left the country as a consequence of the war. The Archbishop turned his search overseas and, though with some difficulties, this proved fruitful. The Misereor Organisation sent Dr Kulic in 1972. Also, two very devoted doctors from Western Germany – Dr B. Mandrella and Dr EgonSauorwald joined the medical team. The euphoria that greeted their coming however was diminished by the death of Dr Sauerwald, a sad experience to the whole Archdiocese. Later, Dr Mandrella got sick too of the dreaded Lassa fever. Sr M. Bride was simply heroic in attending to him. In spite of the highly contagious nature of the disease, in the company of another nurse and a seminarian (now Msgr Greg Adibe), she accompanied him to Ibadan for treatment. Later, with the help of the German government, Dr Mandrella was flown back to Germany for more medical attention. He was still accompanied by Sr M. Bride and a Borromeo nurse, and fortunately got healed. The German government decorated these two with medals in recognition of their gallant efforts.

The Journey Continues
The hospital finally stabilised again and began to grow from strength to strength. The dynamic Sr M. Bride did not rest on her oars. After the post-war reconstructions, in liaison with the Archbishop and other collaborators, she supervised the building of the hospital chapel which is a beautiful piece of art, doctors’ quarters, nurses’ quarters, ante-natal clinic, big underground tank for water among other projects. By the late 1970s, the hospital was chosen by the government as one of the centres for the training of doctor-interns. The hospital today boasts of many high-profile doctors who passed through the tutelage of this programme.Prof.AmobiIlika (former State Commissioner for Health) and Dr Joe Akabuike (present State Commissioner for Health) are among the beneficiaries here. This programme was however stopped some years later.
Also, by the late 1970s, with increasing number of in-patients, the wards were getting overcrowded. There came the need for more wards so that patients would be more appropriately separated and also that cases that need isolation be separated from the rest. Thus, the second hospital major block was designed and the contract for its erection given to Engr Tony Akpulu’s construction company. It was a massive one-storey building, with a sizeable basement being used today as the administrative unit. The project was done with considerable speed, and by 1980, it was ready for use.

The Pope Visits!
In February 1982, the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II of blessed memory visited Nigeria. On Saturday, 13 February, 1982, he visited Onitsha. Included in his tight schedule for the day was a visit to our St Charles Borromeo Hospital, in which the Pope met with and addressed the sick and the elderly from across the nation. Archbishop Francis Arinze was still the prelate and Sr M. Bride at the helm of affairs in the hospital. The parley was organised at the frontage of the hospital main block. The choice of this hospital as the venue of this all-important function tells the whole story. This historic visit remains a very prominent moment in the annals of the hospital.

Trudging on
The hospital continued to forge ahead in spite of the different challenges. It has to be noted that both government policies through different successive military governments from the 1980s and the dwindling economic fortune of the country did not favour mission hospitals. Much support did not come from the government to execute this onerous task of healthcare delivery. The hospital had to device means of not only keeping afloat but also keeping to its ideals. It was really difficult keeping the best hands in medical services due to the luring conditions offered in government establishments. Through these difficult times, the Archdiocese of Onitsha was of great help. The hospital management held on through cost-effective management policies, and it has to be noted that many experts chose to remain with the hospital and save lives rather that taking up juicy offers from government health facilities.
In 1985, Archbishop Stephen N. Ezeanya of blessed memory took over as the Archbishop of Onitsha and thus as the Proprietor of the hospital. In 1995, he in turn handed over to Archbishop Albert K. Obiefuna, also of blessed memory. Noteworthy here is that Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, but changes in government policies were not immediately forthcoming. In 2003, the baton of steering the See of the Archdiocese of Onitsha fell on Archbishop Valerian M. Okeke. In 2004, he appointed an Archdiocesan Priest – Fr Felix Akamonye – as the Manager/CEO of the hospital while the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation continued to hold key positions in hospital management. He also set up an Archdiocesan Hospitals Governing Board to help steer the affairs of the hospitals in the Archdiocese. With their inputs and advice, targets were set for each Archdiocesan Hospital and efforts were made to hit the targets in spite of clear financial constraints.
Fortune however smiled the way of the Archbishop and the hospital when the Anambra State Government, under ex-Governor Peter Obi, as part of the strategy to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the health sector in Anambra State, decided to partner with mission hospitals. It has to be mentioned here that the then State Commissioner for Health – Prof AmobiIlika – was very instrumental to forging this partnership. That was a case of a dream meeting an opportunity. This partnership has been very fruitful. Gov. Peter Obi, for instance, has not ceased to tell the story of how it was only the ambulance that he donated months earlier to Borromeo Hospital that could come to his aid in January 2010 when he and his campaign entourage had an urgent need for an ambulance for a medical emergency! Meanwhile, in that year (2010), FrOgo Daniel Onuorah took over the mantle of managing the hospital from Fr Felix Akamonye, and continued the task of realising the set targets.
In 2012, the State Government released grants-in-aid to the hospital to put up a new residential house for doctors and also upgrade some hospital facilities. It was the intention of the state government that the hospital be accredited for the training of doctor-interns (house officers). These projects were executed with military dispatch and accounts well-rendered, to the delight of the state government. A massive ultra-modern two-storey building which contains sixteen apartments for doctors, was constructed within a record time, and is today fully occupied. We note with joy that, today, our hospital has been officially accredited by the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria for the training of house officers.
The Anambra State Government/MDGs continued the result-yielding partnership with mission hospitals in the state in general and with our hospital in particular. Briefed on the plan of the hospital to erect a School of Nursing and the need thereof, the State Government responded positively. Funds were released and logistics were put in place. In December 2012, the site for this gigantic project was blessed by Archbishop Valerian Okeke while the foundation stone was laid by Gov. Peter Obi. The government continued to keep its pledge to support the project as it progressed. Today, as part of the events to mark our Golden Jubilee celebration, this enormous project is being commissioned to the delight of all.
Again, hearkening to the need of the hospital, the Anambra State Government/MDGs also took up another residential building for hospital staff. This massive edifice of twenty-four apartments has just been completed too. All the more, the government also gave its support to the upgrade of medical equipment in the hospital. The ultra-modern 32-slice Computed Tomography (CT) Scan Machine now functional in the hospital is a reality thanks, to a very large extent, to the support of the Anambra State Government/MDGs.  And Today….
As we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the hospital, we thank the good Lord who, in his infinite love, has guided us all through these years to where we are at the moment. Today, St Charles Borromeo Hospital is the biggest non-governmental hospital in Anambra State, and one of the biggest in South-Eastern Nigeria. With consultants and experts in the different departments of medicine, the hospital has become the referral hospital of the metropolis of Onitsha and beyond. It is on record that, nowadays, the hospital carries the highest burden of healthcare delivery in the state whenever the unfortunate incident of industrial action by doctors and other health workers in the government hospitals happens.
Worthy of mention here is the contribution of the hospital in the fight against the scourge of HIV/AIDS in the country. From the point of the discovery of this disease in Nigeria, the hospital has been in the forefront of the battle of ‘getting to zero’ till today. In 2004, the hospital was raised to a Comprehensive Care Site in the campaign against this scourge. At that point, apart from the teaching hospitals, this was the only hospital of such status in the entire South-Eastern region. To achieve the desired target, the hospital has very actively partnered with the Family Health International (FHI) organisation in its Global HIV/AIDS Initiative (GHAIN) and Strengthening Integrated Delivery of HIV/AIDS Services (SIDHAS) programmes, and has received very many awards from USAID and FHI in recognition of its giant strides here. Today, the hospital has thousands of such patients enrolled into its care and is reputed as being among the best centres in the care of these patients in the country. It is however good to point out here that the management of these patients at the critical stages poses a particular challenge to the hospital staff as patients’ confidentiality is maintained while finding adequate explanation for the relatives is difficult. In many cases, especially of eventual death of the patients, patients’ relatives tend to express dissatisfaction. In spite of this, the hospital continues to carry the burden of these patients and the survival rate is encouragingly high.
Also, the hospital is today a National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS)-accredited centre for primary and Secondary Healthcare Delivery, with accreditation also in delivery of care in different specialties. Today, an increasing number of Health Maintenance Organisations (HMOs) are partnering with the hospital in this health insurance scheme. This is in recognition of the quality and scope of the services rendered in the hospital.
It is pertinent to note here also that the intention of the founding fathers, that the hospital is meant primarily to save the infirmed and not for profit, has not been forgotten. The hospital today engages in charity apostolate in different ways. First, the hospital emphasises the ‘save-the-life-first’ policy which means that very many people in urgent need for medical attention are admitted here. Some of these patients cannot and would eventually not afford the medical treatment. Again, Some accident victims whose identities are not known are brought, and their treatments are commenced. The relatives of many do come to take care of them. But there are some who are not immediately identified. Continuing the treatments of many till discharge, the hospital goes the extra step of helping some of them source funds for their bills. All the more, through the awareness we create, many individuals and groups run to the help of many of these patients in an unprecedented magnitude. In fact, some of them have taken this as their personal/group apostolates. We remain grateful to them.

Our Pursuit for Excellence

And so, appreciating the facts of history that the hospital was completed and blessed in 1964, and officially opened in 1965, the Golden Jubilee Celebration of the hospital was kicked off by the Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Rev. Valerian Okeke on 18 December 2014 while the grand celebration is happening in this year of the Lord, 2015. Sure, it has been fifty years of divine grace made most manifest to our hospital. And we thank God for his goodness. We also sincerely thank all those who in one way or the other have contributed to the success of this hospital, both living and departed. We pray the good Lord, through the intercession of our Patron Saint, Charles Borromeo, to grant you his choicest favours. Finally, we pray God to guide our ways and to bless the works of our hands, that future achievements in healthcare service delivery be much greater than the past. Amen. Amen.

We believe in affordable specialty healthcare for all.

We are sharing in the Healing Ministry of Jesus Christ