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With purpose: Personal tragedy motivates WVU Ph.D. student to help others

Woman wearing dress and jacket stands in front of bush

OLUWATOYIN ADEBISI FEATURE: Oluwatoyin Adebisi, a Ph.D. student originally from Nigeria, said she wants to work to help vulnerable woman, especially pregnant women in rural areas. (WVU Photo/Kyleigh Rice)

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(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of WVUToday stories focused on purpose, a foundational pillar of West Virginia University, which President Gordon Gee outlined as he announced the establishment of a first-of-its-kind Purpose Institute during his State of the University Address on Oct. 18.)

A Nigerian student at West Virginia University who will graduate in May with a Ph.D. in human and community development wants to work to help vulnerable women, especially pregnant women. 

“My dream is to help the children, the pregnant women, help them with their health. They deserve quality health. Their children deserve to live. They don’t deserve to die,” Oluwatoyin Adebisi, who goes by Toyin, said of the way she lives her life with purpose.

Earlier this month, President E. Gordon Gee introduced purpose as WVU’s fourth mission pillar, joining education, health care and economic prosperity, and launched the Purpose Institute.

“The center will help prospective students and employees, as well as current students, faculty, staff and alumni discover—or rediscover—their purpose and place in the world and then help them chart the path forward,” Gee said.

For Adebisi, one of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Chancellor’s Scholars, the path forward involves research work focused on using agritourism as a catalyst for sustainable community development via a cluster network. Her modeling work involves agritourism operators in West Virginia and five other states in the Appalachian region.

The path that brought her to WVU started in 2004 in Akure North in Nigeria when she got married after she initially graduated from college.

Adebisi was soon pregnant, but regular doctor’s appointments were not an option for her even when she developed some uncomfortable symptoms that she assumed came with being pregnant and went unchecked.

“My water broke (at 40 weeks) and I thought everything was fine. I thought it was good. But, unfortunately, I lost the baby. I was 27 years old. They had told me my baby (a boy) was active. So, all of a sudden, what happened?”

No medical explanation was given. “I just took it as my fate,” Adebisi said. 

When she got pregnant a second time, she switched hospitals, but experienced some of the same problematic symptoms.

At 32 weeks, while her husband was in the U.S. for school, she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency C-section which led to a diagnosis of placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta blocks the uterus, interfering with normal delivery.

Despite the efforts of health professionals, the baby boy, her second, did not survive.

“Again the question came, what happened? Everybody thought I was a witch killing these children,” Adebisi recalled.

Adebisi said she believes better prenatal health care in more organized hospitals with well-trained staff members would have made the difference during her first two pregnancies. Too often, she said, prenatal healthcare options are extremely limited in Nigeria and elsewhere. 

“It was nothing like J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital (located in Morgantown),” she said of care in Nigeria.

Adebisi eventually joined her husband, who was working on a master’s degree in engineering, in Morgantown and, when she became pregnant again, she was transferred to Ruby.

“I told them about my issues, and I said, ‘Please, I don’t know what’s going on. Just help me, I’ve lost two babies already and I don’t want to lose anymore.’”

Health assessments showed that Adebisi’s blood sugar spiked at the start of her pregnancy, a possible contributing factor to the issues with her prior pregnancies.

With the help of quality care, she has since delivered three healthy boys, now ages 12, ten and seven.

“The point is this — I am fine,” she said. “I have three boys now, but it’s not only about me. It’s about people like me that have a better future ahead. I’m just thinking about the people who are there and cannot come here for good health care. What can I do on my path to help them? That is why I am crying out for help.” 

Her husband, Adeniyi Adebisi, is the pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God which serves as a base for a number of service projects locally in Morgantown and Granville and for international communities that Toyin Adebisi oversees. 

That work has included donations to WVU Medicine Children’s, Sundale Nursing Home and foster families through the state Department of Health and Human Resources. Donation distributions for the holiday season are the next on her list.

Adebisi said earning her Ph.D. is one of the additional steps she is taking to try to provide assistance as an advocate for quality health care for women and their children.

“After graduation, I will commence working on my goal to address the top health issues among women, especially pregnant women,” Adebisi said. 

Already, Adebisi has a master’s degree in food and nutrition, allowing her to work to address gestational diabetes from a nutritional angle, and a master’s degree in applied statistics, a pursuit to assist in analysis and evaluation of the health status of pregnant women in Nigeria. 

Her education, in her view, provides many ways to help fulfill her purpose.

“This program gives me great exposure to the best approach to reaching out and engaging women, most especially in the rural areas,” she said.



CONTACT: April Kaull
Executive Director of Communications
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