On the day I took my final clinical exam in internal medicine, I was involved in a conversation with two mates of mine. This was shortly before we entered the exam room individually to be grilled. Rather than discuss anything academic, Enestyna Helen Bioh , Akua Boamah and myself (Usually grouped together because of the alphabetical order of our names) got into a conversation about what we were going to do after school. Akua wanted to become an ENT physician. She wanted to rise in the career but also wanted to avoid the night and weekend shifts of medical life because she wanted to keep a good family balance. She thought ENT was going to help her achieve this. Ernestina wasn’t bothered by the ‘a lady must care about family life’ mantra. She has always been a feminist and wouldn’t be intimidated by any of the jokes I poked at her. She wanted to be a hardcore paediatrician achieving medical wonders. I remember looking at her with my sarcastic laughing eyes and chin lift saying )s) nono ✌?✌?✌????.
I hardly ever discuss my personal ambitions or future plans. I fear the Wellington boot-wearing-broom-piloting members of my family but on this day, it was only fair that I gave off a little. So I told them of how I wanted to have time to do so much outside medicine and not just restrict myself to the medical wards. So I wanted to get a PhD in a Pre-clinical science and come to teach in the medical school. I didn’t want the stress of a clinical academic life which usually took more years, more night shifts , more weekends, more yessamassa worshipping of consultants and all that. So I was going to teach, do research and rise quickly to become a professor way ahead of those who choose clinical specialties and have a lot more extra time to pursue an extracurricular life outside medicine. I’ve always held that medicine can be restrictive and if you follow the comfortable average life it offers, you will later grow to realize like many other people, you have only lived, earned a salary, had children and died.
That day as I spoke, my eyes were fixed on Prof Plange-Rhule. My opinion on these issues had been heavily influenced by him and that plan I had just described was modeled after his own path and life structure. In fact that opinion about medicine being restrictive had been borrowed from him. That was how big an influence he had been on my life after our first hour long conversation 5 years earlier. Many more conversations followed, including a text few days to his death.
Prof had been involved in leadership as a student when he served as president of the medical students association. He would eventually take this further to become the youngest president the Ghana Medical Association has seen even till date. When I won elections to become president of the medical students’ association, he called to ask if I had won and invited me over for drinks at the Kumasi Golf club. He was actually the only lecturer who had encouraged me to get involved in such things. I went there only realize he was the president of the golf club and was a king in the golfing world . So I asked him , “Prof what do you not have a hand in in this world ?”. He laughed and responded “Justice, I’ve always told you medicine is too small to contain all of us. There is so much out there you can do. Don’t limit yourself. You should learn to play golf and tennis. We don’t come here to chase a ball as I know you think. This is a business nest. The biggest deals and discussions on anything in this world are signed and sealed in these grasses”. That day, I met PEOPLE . I mean PEOPLE you only hear of in the newspapers. And he knew each one of them by their first names. He appeared to be everyone’s personal doctor knowing exactly which conversation to have with each. And his smirk never disappeared.
We had a long chat about life, his involvements and sufferings and how he had identified loopholes and shortcuts he had managed to capitalize on in life. He told me of how he ended up teaching physiology after his PhD rather than teaching internal medicine with his clinical nephrology fellowship and how that deliberate choice had catapulted him into academic prominence. At the time, it wasn’t the most popular decision and was not the most revered path either. But he had always known what he wanted in life and was seeing what no one saw at the time. He believed in Ghana and was always honest about how as a young person he felt you needed to work hard and not expect anything to be handed to you on a platter. He told me of the endless aluta stories which characterized his tenure as GMA president and how he had eventually managed to get President Kuffour to set up the Ghana college of physicians and surgeons to undertake specialty training of doctors in Ghana as that had been one of the main reasons doctors were leaving Ghana at the time. Later on in life when things calmed down, he put on his academic gown to become the college’s rector; A position he held until his death.
At the end of our conversation that day, I tried to get him to link me up with some of the big men at the golf course who owned companies I thought would be interested in sponsoring the association’s activities but he laughed and asked me to go away. He would later lead me to the MTN foundation where I would later discover that he was the foundation’s board chairman. Everything was just a phone call away from Prof. Every big name in Ghana was just a text away from Prof and no one could say no to him. The respect he commandeered and the influence he had purchased by being useful and helpful to humanity were all too palpable.
Three years ago when I needed him to write me a reference as my second postgraduate supervisor, I chased him for months. He was busy but kept saying I’ll do it for you. I was tempted to ask other senior doctors to write me one as I already had two written for me by other very influential professors. But Prof had said he would do it and I knew what his assurance meant. I also knew the weight his name carried even outside Ghana and so I decided to wait . When he eventually sent the reference, he emailed me a copy and added, “see Dr … when you get there “. He hadn’t just sent a reference, he had put in The Godfather handpull. As I would later find out when I went to see Dr … , Prof had for years held an honourary lectureship of my institution in the UK. His groundbreaking discovery of sodium-water metabolism and its implications for hypertension and kidney diseases had led him places.
And to summarize everything, he had signed off:
Prof Jacob Plange-Rhule MBChB(Med and Surg), PhD, MBA, FRCP(London), FGCP, FWACP.
If you do not know what those letters mean, that is medicine in its entirety written in achievement letters. It takes a lifetime of round the clock hardwork and focus to achieve those. Prof hadn’t just seen it all in medicine, he hadn’t just achieved it all in medicine, he had stepped out of the medical world and conquered the world beyond. How he achieved all these having the same 24hrs in a day and having lived up to just 63 years is the torch I’m sure will keep burning many more years after his demise . COVID is disrespectful. For this crime it has committed, for this robbery it has committed, for this depletion it has left the world, may it be cast far into abyss.