Pioneers of the First Open-Heart Surgery in Nigeria.

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Open-heart surgeries were never held in Nigeria nor in the whole of West-Africa until 1974. They required such dexterity and facilities that Nigeria did not have in hand before that time.

History was bound to be made, however, when two Nigerian Cardiothoracic surgeons trained in the United States – Dr. Fabian Udekwu and Dr. Isaac Grillo – brought home independently the vision to see open-heart surgeries initiated in Nigeria.

In recent years, cardiothoracic surgeons in Nigeria have recorded more and more successes. For instance, in 2015, open-heart surgical operation was successfully carried out on six patients at the National Hospital, Abuja.

So, it is only requisite that we go back in time, and deep dive into the lives of the two Nigerian surgeons aforementioned who frontiered Open-heart Surgeries in the country, and see what their journeys were like.

Pioneers of the First Open-Heart Surgery in Nigeria

Here we discuss how Dr. Fabian and Dr. Grillo made impacts in the field of cardiac surgery in Nigeria.

1] Dr. Fabian Udekwu (1928 – 2006)

This amazing Doctor was the first to put a Nigerian patient on a cardiopulmonary bypass pump in Nigeria. The CBP pump is a machine that bypasses (takes over) the function of the heart and lungs during such surgeries. It was the first in Nigeria, and was at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Enugu.

The hour-long surgery was performed on a 19-year-old man who had a medical history of dyspnea, chest pain, fatigue and was in heart failure. Prof. Fabian Udekwu – alongside Sir Magdi Yacoub (an Egyptian-British citizen) – spearheaded the spectacular surgery.

The team of surgeons included M. Yacoub, F.A. Udekwu, D.C. Nwafor, C.H. Anyanwu, and others.

Fabian Anene Ositadimma, known as the Pioneer of Open-Heart surgery in Africa, was born in 1928 in Anambra State. He attended Loyola University Chicago, graduating as a medical doctor in 1957 and specialising in general cardiac and thoracic surgery in 1964[1].

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 later fled Ibadan to Biafra at the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).

After the war, Udekwu was appointed head of department of surgery of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Teaching Hospital (UNTH) where he led Open-heart surgeries on 6 more patients between 1974 and 1980.

He was a founding member of the Nigerian Academy of Science, and has several publications to his credit. He was also 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.

Prof. Fabian Udekwu died in 2006 at age 78, leaving 10 offsprings behind.

2] Dr. Isaac Grillo (1931 – 2022)

His story was set at quite the same time as Dr. Fabian Udekwu. They trained almost simultaneously in the United States. And both must have had the same vision to initiate OHS in Nigeria.

Born in Lagos, 1931, Prof. Isaac Grillo and his team of Nigerian medics were the first solely indigenous Nigerian group team members to perform open-heart surgery in Nigeria (Ibadan) without the assistance of a non-Nigerian doctor or nurse or pump technician[2].

In 1973, the University College Hospital, Ibadan refused the plea of Prof. Grillo to invite his mentors in the US, insisting that he should perform the open-heart surgical procedures alone without the assistance of any foreign help (which was not feasible).

Isaac Grillo persisted. He convinced Ivan May, his US-based mentor, to help train a Nigerian Theatre nurse and a Nigerian cardiopulmonary by-pass pump technician for him. Ivan May agreed and sought a total scholarship for Mrs. Omotosho Mr. S. Osanyintuyi as nurse and pump technician respectively.

In 1974, Prof. Grillo lost his sister, Miss Priscilla Adetoun, to a condition treatable by open-heart surgery. This grief prompted him to write Samuel Adebonojo to hurry home from the US to join him so that other patients could be helped.

In 1975, Dr. Samuel Adebonojo joined him, followed by Dr. Olu Oshinowo and ‘Wole Adebo. Isaac Grillo was the Professor and Chair of Department of Surgery in UCH, Ibadan at the time.

In 1978, he led a team of solely indigenous Nigerian members to perform the first open-heart surgery with an all-indigenous team in West-Africa.

Professor Grillo was brilliant, showed leadership, and exuded supreme confidence. He attended Baptist Academy in Lagos for his primary and secondary education[3].

Grillo obtained his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Kansas in 1960. He completed his General and Thoracic Surgery Training and passed both examinations in 1966 and 1967, respectively.

Prof. Isaac Grillo is a recipient of many meritorious awards from medical and surgical societies in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.


[1] Solomon Ojigbo. Pioneer of Open-Heart Surgery in Sub-Saharan Africa. PharmaNewsOnline. Https:// Published 2019. Accessed September 8, 2022.

[2] Prof. Adelola Adeloye. Open-Heart Surgery in Nigeria for Beginning till Date. National Institute of Health. Published 2009. Accessed September 8, 2022.

[3] Abraham Adeniran Ariyo. The Distinguished Heart Surgeon of Our Time. Published April, 2022. Accessed September 8, 2022.

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