How Elizabeth N. Anionwua braved the odds to become UK’s first sickle cell nurse specialist

Michael Eli Dokosi Jul 18, 2020 at 12:00pm

July 18, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, Success Story, Women of Value

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

July 18, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, Success Story, Women of Value

Elizabeth Nneka Anionwua via Royal College of Nursing

Elizabeth Mary Furlong, also known as Elizabeth Nneka Anionwua, is a celebrated British nurse, health care administrator, lecturer, and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of West London. But growing up as a child, she had to scale many obstacles.

Born in Birmingham, England to an Irish mother who was in her second year studying Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge University and a Nigerian father studying Law at Cambridge University, her presence caused a dilemma for her mom Mary Maureen Furlong who was unable to tell her strict catholic parents about the pregnancy. She had contemplated jumping in a river to end it all.

Nonetheless, Mary birthed on July 2, 1947, and when it emerged that the baby was brown and that her father was Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu of Nigerian extraction, tension was in the air. Birthing a brown baby out of wedlock and dropping out of school made Mary’s parents furious.

Elizabeth was thus raised by nuns at the Nazareth House convent in Birmingham with her mum Mary paying regular visits. Although punished by some of the nuns for wetting the bed, she still grew attached to the facility such that when her mum came for her after nine years to live with her, she was saddened perhaps because one nun cum nurse treated her sores with care.

The period living with her mother had its positives but when her stepfather started physically abusing her, partly because he was mocked for raising a colored girl, her over two years stay ended when she was shipped to her maternal grandparents.

Unknown to her, the arrangement was that she will be returned to her mom on the attainment of her 16th birthday. She was devastated with the transfer just when she was enjoying some stability.

She eventually qualified as a nurse, then a health visitor, preferring the latter as she could visit recovering patients at home.

Although she hadn’t had any meaningful talk about her father with her mom, she eventually asked when folks kept asking her about where she came from originally despite having a strong Birmingham accent.

Cut off from her African side and not knowing Africans except a Sierra Leonean, Elizabeth asked him if he could find out which ethnic group his father’s surname belonged to in Nigeria. The friend, a law lecturer, did one better by finding her father who was still in the UK.

So before her 25th birthday, she found her father; a barrister and former Nigerian Ambassador to Italy and the Vatican, Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu from Onitsha in south-eastern Nigeria. She went to Nigeria, met the family and took on her father’s surname.

Elizabeth traveled to the United States to study counseling for sickle cell and thalassemia centers and in 1979 worked with Dr. Milica Brozovic to create the first UK sickle cell and thalassemia counseling center in Brent followed by 30 others across the country.

Elizabeth, who became the UK’s first sickle cell nurse specialist at 73, is an emeritus professor of nursing at the University of West London. She campaigned to have a statue of Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole erected in St Thomas’ Hospital in 2016.

For her services and contributions to nursing practice, she received the award of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, conferred on her by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017.

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