Years of abuse to my ticker led me down a path of pain

Kenneth Kimeli, 49, knows all too well the dangers of several years of smoking and drinking.

I started smoking and drinking illicit brews when I joined high school 20 years ago. I progressively began abusing drugs too. I troubled my parents a lot and was transferred to three different schools in their attempt to tame my behaviour. It worked for a while, but when I sat my KCSE five years later and moved away from my parents, I continued drinking and smoking.

Two years after I left high school, I started getting weak. I was always too fatigued to perform my daily duties at a painting business I ran. I battled nausea and I was always sweating profusely even when it was cold. I visited many health facilities and received treatment that did little to help.

I was worried when, months later, I started experiencing shortness of breath and severe chest pain. A doctor at a hospital in Iten suggested that I get tested for rheumatic fever. Results of the tests at another hospital in Eldoret indeed revealed that I had a heart disease. Doctors found that one of my valves was destroyed and that it was interfering with the flow of blood. They also found that my heart was swollen. They said my swollen heart was the reason for my breathing difficulties since it wasn’t pumping blood in my body effectively. They attributed my condition to my years of smoking and drinking. The doctor’s pronouncement shocked me. But I knew that I was reaping what I had sowed all those years of my waywardness.

In 1997, when I was diagnosed with the heart complication, little could be done in the country to manage the condition. Only a few hospitals in Nairobi had facilities and expertise to perform open heart surgeries. These hospitals only attended to critical patients while others were put on treatment to manage their conditions.  And so, when doctors decided my condition wasn’t very serious, they asked me to continue clinic visits for at least five years. During these clinics, I was given medication to prevent my already swollen heart from overworking.

A random check-up at Kenyatta National Hospital, some four years later, found that my heart valve was terribly damaged and the swelling in my heart had increased. In fact, doctors said I risked heart failure. They said it would be a miracle if I lived for two more months in that condition.

The noisy valve

Something had to be done fast. They fitted me with a temporary metallic valve as I waited for a major surgery to correct the whole of my heart which had become defective.

To date, I still cringe at the memory of the metallic valve which used to tick all day and night, giving me sleepless nights. In fact, it was loudest at night when everyone was asleep and everything was silent. I heaved a sigh of relief when doctors started exploring possibilities of open heart surgery. They, however, made my family understand the complicated nature of the surgery and told us to be ready for any outcome. At this pronouncement, we started looking into other options and my brother’s friend recommended a hospital in India. My family sold a lot of property and with additional donations from friends, I travelled to India in July 2002 for my major surgery. I stayed in comma for five days and woke up with a more sophisticated artificial valve in my heart.

Back home, I was attached to a cardiologist who continued managing my condition. I was also put on medication to manage the thickness of my blood. With the artificial valve, blood that is too thick can cause the valve to rapture. And when it is too thin, it can cause bleeding. I also have to monitor my blood pressure as it has a direct impact to the functioning of my heart. While in India, I was introduced to eating 12 meals in a day to regain my weight which had dropped from 70-plus kg to less than 60. And so, when I came back, I had to ensure that I maintained this lifestyle. This prompted me to go back to work the moment I regained my strength.

In India, I was told that I would lead a normal life with the artificial valve and that is how it has been. I knew I had got a new chance in life. Though late, I also got married and started a family. Because of my experience, I grab every opportunity I get to talk to young people about the dangers of smoking and drinking. I have also talked to a number of people in Rift Valley who were scared of open heart surgery and they got convinced that there’s life after surgery.