Adetayo Grillo: The Distinguished Heart Surgeon of Our Time

Adetayo Grillo: The Distinguished Heart Surgeon of Our Time.

By Abraham Ariyo

It is with gratitude to God for a life well spent that I announce the passing of Professor Isaac Adetayo Grillo on April 4th, 2022. He was Professor Emeritus of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Nigeria’s premier Medical School, The College of Medicine, University of Ibadan.

Professor Grillo performed the first all-Nigerian open-heart surgery in Nigeria. In 1978, he led a team of solely indigenous Nigerian members to perform open-heart surgery in Nigeria (Ibadan). There was no assistance from a non-Nigerian doctor, nurse, or pump technician. UCH trained every single member of the team in the U.S. and ensured they were proficient before embarking on this innovative procedure.

Professor Grillo was brilliant, showed leadership, and exuded supreme confidence. He exemplified the best of humanistic and professional discipline. He was not a talker, but a doer. He simply got things done. He shied away from the limelight and accolades despite collecting meritorious awards from medical and surgical societies in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

My best memories of him were his Cardiothoracic Surgery Team ward rounds. In 1985, as a fresh clinical student that was new at UCH, watching his indigenous heart team, that performed the first open heart surgery in West Africa, as they moved along the corridor was special. Watching the round with his heart surgical colleagues (Professor Adebo, Professor Buraimoh (Brimmo) and Professor Osinowo) was like watching a movie, except this was real life. We were privileged to witness the best “Heart Team” the African Continent had to offer the world. It was our DREAM Team. Those of us who were new to UCH called them ‘The Lion’s Club’ and we felt sorry for their interns. I learnt later what a privilege it was to be his intern. He showed me discipline and more especially, he showed me love. He inspired us to be cardiovascular specialists. Following in his footsteps, UCH continues to produce the largest number of world-class cardiovascular specialists of any medical school in Nigeria.

Professor Grillo was born in the Lafiaji Quarters, Lagos Island, Lagos, in Nigeria on January 15th, 1931. His father was Aina Osaoba Grillo, a Lagosian and a school teacher. His mother was Adenike Omolara, an Ijesa princess. He had two older brothers: Professor Ige Grillo, the first Professor of Anatomy in Nigeria and Founding Dean, University of Ife College of Health Sciences, and Professor S A Grillo, the Neuropharmacologist, also at the University of Ife.

Professor Grillo attended Baptist Academy in Lagos for his primary and secondary education, which he completed in 1948. He took Wolsey Hall, Oxford correspondence course as part of pre-degree course of the University of London. However, in 1951, he obtained a scholarship and gained admission into the McPherson College in USA. He subsequently graduated there with double Bachelor degrees in Arts (Psychology) and Science (Biology) in 1955. He proceeded to obtain his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Kansas in 1960. He completed General and Thoracic Surgery Training and passed both examinations in 1966 and 1967, respectively.

In 1968, he returned and enlisted in the Nigerian Army during the civil war as a Field Lieutenant Colonel. From 1968 – 1989, he worked as a Consultant in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at UCH where he served as the Chief from 1985-1988. He recruited and trained bright Nigerians from USA and brought them back to UCH, where he led an all-Nigerian team to perform a landmark open-heart operation. As early as 1974, his US-based mentor wanted to bring an American team to Ibadan to perform open heart surgery. The proud Nigerians wanted an all-Nigerian team. They finally achieved this in 1978, setting a new record in West Africa.

From 1971-1988, he served as Consultant Surgeon to the Baptist Hospital in Igbomosho. For 11 years, from 1988-1999, he worked as Consultant Cardiothoracic Surgery in Saudi Arabia, where he was Chief of Surgery at King Fahd Central Hospital, Gizen. From 2000-2004, he went back to practice in the USA. In 2007, he permanently retired in Ibadan, Nigeria, where he served as the founding father for Cowen and BabCock Medical Schools.

Prof. Grillo, our distinguished pioneering heart surgeon, and a humble human being, has passed on to the beyond. In our hearts, you remain the teacher of teachers, professor of professors, and the gentle giant. We see far because we stand on the shoulders of giants like you.

As a devout Christian, Professor Grillo was strong in faith. He was a member of the Oritamefa Baptist Church Choir, playing violin there for many decades. This same choir came to his residence to play for him on his 91st birthday. He was such a humble person who believed in the truth and in our Lord Jesus Christ. I will leave you with some of his direct quotes: “ Tell the truth with love”. “This was Paul’s exhortation to the Church”. “It is important to acknowledge the past in order to appreciate the present and trust the future into the hands of the Master of the Universe for greater success for the coming generation for the benefit of our patients.”
“We should worship God, not greatness.”

Sleep in the Lord, the beloved heart surgeon of our time.

Abraham Adeniran Ariyo, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.C.
Interventional Cardiologist, Baylor Scott & White Medical Ctr
Director, HeartMasters Cardiology
Dallas, Texas, USA

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