PARK RIVER, N.D. (AP) — Residents of Walsh County are mourning the death of a prominent surgeon.
Dr. Olukayode Samuel Omotunde, a surgeon at First Care Health Center in Park River, N.D., and Unity Medical Center in Grafton, N.D., died unexpectedly Wednesday.
He had been with First Care since 1989 and Unity since 1992.
"It's a very great loss for two communities," said Louise Dryburgh, First Care CEO. "He's been here almost 23 years. It's also a great loss to our facility."
Omotunde, a native of Nigeria, was the only surgeon practicing in Park River.
"He was a true gentleman in every sense," said Everett Butler, CEO at Unity. "He was with us for over 20 years. Losing him is like losing a member of your family. In small facilities such as this, you develop bonds, so it really is like losing a member of the family.
In a 1989 interview with the Herald, Omotunde, who previously had worked in Albany, N.Y., Orangeburg, S.C., and New York City, talked about moving to Park River, a town of 1,400.
He first visited Park River in 1983, when he was asked by a friend and colleague, I.I. Afonya, to fill in while he took a vacation. Afonya now is with RiverView Health in Crookston.
"I just fell in love with the place," the then-45-year-old Omotunde said. "There are people — doctors — who can live in a rural setting. Others can't stand it. For me, this is just perfect. I love the serenity of the rural environment. That is beautiful. If I can enjoy my life and my surroundings, and be paid for it, that's just perfect."
Then, in 1996, when the community of Grafton was looking for another physician, Omotunde recruited his brother, Joshua, who had just completed his family medicine residency.
"Care is something beyond aspirin and medical books," he said then. "Nothing can replace the personal contact with a family or patient."
Yet, he never forgot his roots.
O.S. Omotunde and his wife, Esther, traveled back to Nigeria nearly every year, spending his vacation time providing free medical service to needy children and adults.
Where he grew up, only half the children live past the age of 5, he said, as many were killed by malaria and other diseases. One of his younger brothers and an uncle died because they lacked health care, he told the Herald earlier this year.
"The environment at that time was a death sentence," he said.
The Omotundes built a clinic in Ikun, a town of about 3,000 in Ekiti state in southwest Nigeria. The clinic now has 12 beds and standard operating and X-ray rooms.
In 2005, they established Sustainable Development for the Underprivileged, a nonprofit group dedicated to delivering medical care to economically and socially-deprived rural Nigerians. Funds raised are paying for equipment for the clinic.
"We need to establish something that will outlive us and benefit the community," O.S. Omotunde told the Herald earlier this year. "If all those things can be done, I will feel accomplished."
Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald/Associated Press