February 25, 2023

O’Leary: Ticats’ medical director has strong connection to team

Photo supplied by Dr. Olufemi Ayeni

Dr. Olufemi Ayeni sat in front of the computer in his office, holding a piece of metal that’s designed to replace a hip.

The sound of children giggling accompanied his explanation of a hip replacement and while his presentation to this group of elementary school students was a virtual one, you got the sense that he was in the room with them, holding their attention the way their teacher would.

Dr. Ayeni is a professor and the academic head of orthopaedic surgery at McMaster University, as well as the medical director for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Forge FC. He’s worked with the Tiger-Cats since 2017.

His path to the multitude of roles he holds is a remarkable one. Born in Montreal to Nigerian parents (his father, Dr. Oluwafemi Ayeni, studied medicine at McGill while his mother, Titi, studied early childhood education at Concordia), he and the still-growing family moved back to Nigeria when he was three. The family returned to Canada when he was 11, settling in Kapuskasing, Ont. (“about 12 hours north of Toronto,” he explains), where his father worked as a physician, serving a community of around 15,000.

Of the five Ayeni children, four are surgeons (and one a researcher). While Dr. Ayeni works at McMaster, three of his siblings practice at the Newmarket hospital in the greater Toronto area.

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Outside of the family’s tremendous success, Dr. Ayeni recognizes that Black surgeons are still under-represented as a whole. That’s part of his motivation in doing things like speaking to elementary students, or chatting with CFL.ca on the night before he leaves for a conference and vacation time.

“The future is bright and as Canadians, we’re lucky to be in a wonderful inclusive country. But more importantly, things will only get better if there’s representation from all people who make the country great,” Dr. Ayeni said.

“When I go to elementary schools, actually I tell my wife all the time: I enjoy speaking to a bunch of five, six and seven-year-olds sometimes as much as I enjoy going to a big orthopaedic conference and speaking to colleagues who’ve worked for 40 or 50 years because you can really energize, motivate and shape the future.”

It’s not lost on him that when he speaks to those classrooms that there are kids seeing him that can start to see themselves in similar roles, too.

“I’m hopeful that several of them will pursue a field whereby they’re currently underrepresented,” he said. “Then, that increased representation brings better patient care because in a diverse country like Canada, patients will see an inclusive profession that welcomes someone of their background. With all of the different backgrounds in our country, we have access to different thought processes, innovative ideas and solutions on how to solve complex problems we see in the clinic and on the football field.

“The future of problem solving is really about fresh ideas and innovation while thinking outside the box. So the more diverse thought processes and world views that we include on our team, the more we can include others who may try and provide solutions.

“We value different perspectives, even with basic things like our approach to communication, like maybe how we greet, how we attend to injured people, whatever can make us better. It only improves if we have new voices and fresh ways to think about things.”

Dr. Ayeni first made contact with the Tiger-Cats in 2017. He immediately connected with team caretaker Bob Young and Scott Mitchell, now the managing partner and CEO of the Hamilton Sports Group. They were both welcoming and fully supportive with his approach to developing the medical staff. As Orlondo Steinauer climbed his way through the Ticats’ organization, he and Dr. Ayeni got to know one another as well.

Dr. Ayeni and his Tiger-Cats’ medical staff colleagues at the 107th Grey Cup in Calgary in 2019 (Photo supplied by Dr. Olufemi Ayeni)

They seem to draw parallels in how they go about their jobs and can relate with each other on being under-represented in their respective fields. Both actively work to open doors for others, creating opportunities where they’ve been limited or may not have existed in the past. 

Steinauer recently gave a talk to help an initiative that Dr. Ayeni has launched that offers up career management and advice for medical professionals. 

“I think arguably, in my career, I haven’t met a better communicator and a more compassionate human being and somebody who really naturally commands respect because of how he leads,” Dr. Ayeni said of Steinauer. 

“He’s an inclusive type of leader where he tries to involve everybody and bring the best out of everybody.” 

It’s an environment that Dr. Ayeni strives to have in his world as well. He wants trainees to contribute and speak up in processes and not be afraid to be wrong or voice ideas due to lack of experience. It’s also helped in how the Ticats’ medical team has been able to work with Steinauer. 

Dr. Ayeni taking in the 108th Grey Cup in Hamilton in 2021 (Photo supplied by Dr. Olufemi Ayeni)

“(Steinauer) creates an organizational safety whereby people feel they can contribute and speak up,” Dr. Ayeni said. “That has done wonders for us medically, I think it encourages us to grow our staff and to continue providing a high level of care.”

Both men seem to approach their roles with the mentality of leaving the space better than it was when they arrived. On the football front of his professional life, Dr. Ayeni expressed his gratitude to the Ticats for bringing him in. 

“I’m just grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “All I can do is work hard and also try to help others. At one point I was an elementary school kid looking for an example. I was lucky to have my dad, but maybe (other children) don’t have somebody in medicine like I did. They don’t have that example to think that they could do that, too. 

“Apart from being grateful, I also feel responsible, especially in Black History Month, to show that everybody belongs in surgery and orthopaedics and sports medicine. The more thoughts, the more voices, the better it is for all of us collectively.”

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