It is exactly nine and a half months since they arrived in Mandera County to offer health services.
And before yesterday’s events, Dr Assel Herera Correa (general physician) and Dr Landy Rodriguez (surgeon) were the only foreign doctors brought into the country by the government who defied the odds to serve in an area perceived by many people as a “security risk.”
The doctors had earned themselves the the name “Amigos” (friend), walking freely along the corridors of the hospital compound as they saluted locals in the popular “jambo” greeting.
When I visited them in Mandera last year, Correa warmly greeted me in Spanish. “Como estas senora (How are you Miss)?”
When I responded in Kiswahili “mzuri sana”, he burst out in a fit of laughter.
Having spent less than two months in Mandera, the doctor’s quest to learn a language that was going to assist him manage patients at the Mandera County Referral Hospital was clear.
This was also evident in his colleague Rodriquez, who had to work with a translator at the beginning. Even as they struggled with the challenges, local doctors and nurses downloaded on their cellphones applications that translated English into Spanish for ease of communication.
“We were helped to settle down in Mandera by Dr Ali Osman who studied in Cuba and returned home to serve his county,” Dr Correa said.
However, during an interview with Correa, I learnt that he had served in Botswana and Venezuela before being moved to Kenya alongside his 99 colleagues.
The doctor, who learnt Setswana in Botswana, said he had to accept the posting since a doctor’s job is to save lives in any environment or situation.
“The first thing I did was to check the internet and the security situation shocked me. I did not know what to do because my colleagues felt sorry for me. Cuban doctors work in all conditions in 75 countries,” he told me during the interview in July.
Mandera had been a peaceful work station for him and he was even thinking of inviting his family. “Unlike what I saw on the internet before coming, this place is very secure and I wouldn’t mind my wife and daughter joining me here,” he said.
By the time of the interview, Correa who was attending to 25 patients per day at the facility said the locals were very friendly and he had already adapted to the culture.
Just like Correa, Dr Rodriguez (surgeon) called his family in Cuba daily to share with them their experiences in Mandera town.
“Food is very nice here and I am planning to taste camel and goat meat soon. I love tea with milk though I don’t know how to differentiate camel and cow milk,” said Rodriguez who also checked the internet after learning that he was coming to serve in Mandera County.
The surgeon said he handled 10 cases per day. His day starts at 8am, he leaves the hospital at 5pm but remains on standby in case of an emergency. Dr Rodqiguez has successfully performed many surgical procedures at the institution that also receives referrals from Ethiopia and Somalia.
The referrals are written in Amharic or Somali language, with some English translation to enable doctors in Mandera know the patient’s history.
Ms Dekha Hassan Tawane, who had a Caesarian section five years ago, arrived at the hospital in June last year writhing in pain. “I was operated on here five years ago but on returning to Bulahawa in Somalia, my rectum opened but healed after several months,” she said.
Tawane got pregnant but due to insecurity in Somalia and lack of medical facilities, she had to persevere and wait to deliver. “When things got bad, my sister had to get a donkey cart and we went through the bushes for fear of militiamen. At the Kenya-Somalia border, we used a makeshift wheelbarrow to cross before good Samaritans rushed me to this hospital at around 5pm,” she said.
Tawane had a rare condition of the fetus growing inside the hernia and had to be wheeled to the theatre as an emergency case after going into labour for four days in the bush. “With the help of the team in the theatre, I managed to extract the baby in a bid to remove pressure from the mother’s belly. Both the mother and baby are in good condition,” said Dr Rodriguez who operated on Tawane for two hours.
At the male ward was a patient lying on his back. He greeted Dr Rodriguez as he murmured a word in Somali.
“The patient’s liver had ruptured and only a small piece of it was remaining. I had to perform laparoscopic liver operation to save his life,” he said.