A laboratory technician who came to Canada to seek a better life, Nelson Achonu returned home to Nigeria in the ’70s to aid those stricken with a particular illness.
There is a disproportionate risk of sickle cell anemia – an inherited disorder affecting the shape of the red blood cells that carry oxygen within the body – in populations of African descent. “In those days, there wasn’t much treatment and many of the children with sickle cell anemia in Nigeria died before reaching adulthood,” says Nelson’s daughter, Denise Achonu. At his medical lab in Aba, Nelson specialized in diagnosing and helping those with sickle cell, educating the population and providing free tests.
Born in Umuahia, Nigeria to Achonu Okparaocha, a produce buyer, and his wife Berniece, the owner of a convenience store, Nelson Nwosu Okparaocha had five brothers – Isaac, Bennett, Uzoma, Uju and Amobi – and a sister, Florence.
He attended St. Stephen’s School in Umuahia and Township School in Port Harcourt, gaining admission into the Methodist Secondary School in Uzuakoli, Abia State, in 1956. “He would not have been able to attend these prestigious schools without the sacrifice and financial support of his older brother, Isaac,” says Denise, as the children’s father had died when they were young. (The siblings later changed their surnames to Achonu to honor their father.) Following Nelson’s high school graduation, he entered the civil service, working as a produce inspector under the Ministry of Agriculture in Port Harcourt.
While Nelson had many friends and an active social life, a cousin who moved to the United States inspired him to see what else the world had to offer.
Accepted to university in Canada, Nelson left Nigeria in 1968 in the company of two cousins, first stopping in London, England. While there, fate stepped in: he saw a newspaper advertisement for a paid microbiology internship at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston, Ontario and changed his path, moving there alone.
Shortly after his arrival in Canada, he met nursing student Carolyn James at a tennis court. Emboldened, I have invited her to play the next day. To the dismay of both their families, they married in 1970 in Lansing, Michigan, where Nelson was studying microbiology. “Interracial marriages were not that common or accepted at the time,” says Denise, but “my dad was not one to succumb to anyone’s edict. Just like his decision to move to Canada, to marry my mom, he was going to do what he wanted to do.
It was difficult for Carolyn, a registered nurse, to find work in the US, so they returned to Canada, where Nelson earned his microbiology degree at Wilfrid Laurier University.
By then a dual citizen of Nigeria and Canada, Nelson worked as a laboratory technologist in the department of veterinary microbiology at the University of Guelph, and then in the division of clinical microbiology at MDS Laboratories Ltd. in Mississauga in 1975.
With the Nigerian Civil War having ended in 1970, the family moved to Nelson’s homeland in 1977 so their daughters, Denise, Camille and Jacqueline, could grow up immersed in their father’s culture. Recruited as a scientific officer with the Government of Nigeria, Nelson was posted to the Ministry of Health in Lagos, but soon resigned to set up his own diagnostic lab and blood bank in Aba, Imo State, specializing in sickle cell anemia.
“Those with sickle cell,” says Denise, “could get blood transfusions when needed to help alleviate their symptoms,” which include pain, infection and swelling of hands and feet. Seeing a high number of cases, Nelson also encouraged blood tests before marriage (for a baby to be born with sickle cell anemia, both parents must carry the gene).
An economic downtown in the late ’80s brought the family back to Mississauga. Due to complications from kidney disease diagnosed in 1993, followed by a transplant two years later, Nelson had to retire earlier than he would have liked, says his daughter Carolyn Achonu. Through his personal fundraising team (Team Nelly), Nelson became a passionate supporter of the Kidney Foundation of Canada, spent time with his seven grandchildren and travelled. Though he considered Canada home, he never lost his love for his homeland or its people.
His children remember him as extremely gregarious and outgoing. “Sometimes when we would go to a new city, he would open up the phone book and call up those who had Nigerian names, and most of the time they would end up inviting him over,” says Carolyn. “He made friends of all ages everywhere he went.” Knowing what it was like to be alone in a new country, he also helped many newcomers settle in Canada, and shared what he could, she adds.
“He didn’t think twice about helping people.”
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