Presence. Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates enters my office, her luminous smile beaming, her arms outstretched in warm greeting, her bearing proud in the dress of her Nigerian background. Soon enough, her keen mind and big heart would show themselves. In this People issue featuring swashbuckling author Randy Wayne White, controversial former Mayor of Cape Coral Marni Sawicki and the shrewd father of our county, Barron Collier, Yemisi deserves notice, too, as a gathering force for helping those most in need in Southwest Florida.
Her title at Lee Health in Fort Myers is System Director of Diversity and Patient Care Civil Rights, and it hardly seems to capture the seemingly round-the-clock force she has become within both the health care system and the community that surrounds it.
Yemisi comes to the mission with credentials. At age 7, she came with her parents from Nigeria to settle into New York City. Yemisi tells of her dad, just knowing she needed to speak with clarity in her new country, drilling her daily (to her annoyance at the time) with diction challenges like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” She rocketed through the educational system, garnering advanced degrees from college including a master’s magna cum laude from the University of Florida. She studied as a Fulbright-Hays fellow in West Africa and taught English in Japan for three years.
She’s been with Lee Health for 10 years, and I asked her to give us a sampling of the people she encounters every day in the name of improving their lives.
On the employee front, she tells of an executive who had lived in big cities before coming to Southwest Florida. “He was very unhappy in Southwest Florida,” Yemisi says, “and wanted to leave.” But Yemisi found him extra purpose, connecting him to the Quality Life Center in Fort Myers, where he mentored young boys. “It made such a difference for him,” she says, “and 2 years later now, he’s very happy with his life.”
“We have an openly transgender employee,” Yemisi says, “and I was able to step in and coach her personally and professionally. I’m proud to be part of an organization that encourages this. And thrilled to get a nice thank-you note from the woman herself. I try to be a blank canvas creating space for the toughest of conversations.”
In the patient care arena, Yemisi had a surgeon come to her with a problem. He had a baby who needed specialized surgery. But, he said, the parents, Haitians, kept postponing the surgery. Yemisi sat down with them and discovered that it was a religious issue with them: They were praying to God to save their baby. And it was a financial matter, too. The surgery had to be in Miami, and that meant missing work at their jobs. “We persuaded them to go forward with the procedure,” Yemisi says, “and our amazing doctor called their workplace to make things right there.” The surgery was successful and the baby is doing fine.
On the community outreach part of her job, Yemisi tries to share best practices when she can. In one instance, there was a Family Health Fair in town that wasn’t doing so well. She got on a committee there and persuaded them to invite kids along with the parents and created cool activities for the youngsters. That way, the parents felt free to get their screenings. Attendance rose from 200 the previous year to 600 after the kids were invited.
Says Yemisi, “Lee Health allows me to be who I am. I am black, often wear African attire, and I have a long, different name. I am out in the community and a young black woman came up to me once and said that my being out there doing things that matter made her feel empowered. That meant a lot to me. I didn’t realize I had that impact.”
Yemisi’s also charged with encouraging corporate social responsibility. “We have a smart, industrious Haitian employee who is on Temporary Protective Status as an immigrant and is in danger of losing this status,” Yemisi says. “It really affected me. We partnered with a nonprofit law firm in Miami to do a clinic here free for all immigrants seeking help with their status. The employee now has an attorney working for him, and I’m hopeful for a good outcome.”
She is also the chairperson for needs assessment for the Pennies for Community Progress project to establish a children’s service council in Fort Myers. It aims to provide aid for education and physical and mental health, and dealing with the violence all around them. “Health is a dynamic term,” Yemisi says, “and includes all of these things.”
Her job, Yemisi says, is 24/7, and she admits she does get tired. “We all need fuel to keep us going,” she says, “and purpose is my fuel; knowing I’ve done some good is of the utmost importance to me. My name—Oluwayemisi—in Yoruba means ‘God has set me apart with honor.’ I don’t take it for granted.”
A while back, her dad came for a visit and asked if he could follow her around for a day. When it was over, he said he didn’t know she did all that. “I’m so proud of you,’’ he told her. He joins legions of others who have seen her in action.