She comes across as a quiet and reserved person. But an afternoon chat with the soft-spoken doctor reveals her different side.
Dr Zipporah Ali exudes a sense of great confidence coupled with a warm hospitality. And one can’t help but be amazed with her great sense of intelligence; something that I guess propelled her to venture into the field of Medicine. She clearly couldn’t have chosen a better career.
Dr Zippy, as she is fondly known, is the Executive Director of Kenya Hospices and Palliative Care Association (KEHPCA), an umbrella body of all hospices and palliative care units in the country.
She has been instrumental in leading the fight for palliative care (which is care given to patients with life-threatening or chronic illnesses) to be recognised in the country.
Born and brought up in Kakamega in Western Kenya, Dr Ali’s passion and desire to venture into Medicine was fuelled by a number of experiences she encountered back in the village.
“While growing up in the village, I saw many people, both young and old, die of various diseases. It was neither a good sight nor feeling. And through this experience, I felt the need to venture into public health once I grew up, just to be able to save people,” says Zipporah, the second born in her family.
Her late mum who was her greatest inspiration worked as a nurse while her late dad was a businessman.
After her high school education, she pursued a Doctor of Medicine degree (MD) from Ege University, Izmir, Turkey, which she completed in 1986 and later enrolled at the University of Nairobi for a Masters degree in Public Health, which she completed in 1994.
She first worked at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) as an intern and was then hired as a medical officer and served in various departments including the casualty department.
But how did her passion and desire for palliative care start?
“My love for palliative care was ignited when my eldest brother died of blood cancer at the age of 33 in 1991,” she recalls.
It was not easy for her and her family. “I was a young doctor then. He was diagnosed and succumbed to the disease within two weeks,” says Zipporah.
“It was a really painful and traumatising experience. My brother departed from this world with a lot of pain. He cried all the time and we were not able to do anything about his pain despite the fact that there were doctors in the family,” she adds.
Out of this experience, she developed an interest in palliative care.
“I started thinking of what I could do to alleviate such suffering to other individuals who were going through the same,” she says.
After working for a few years at KNH, she ended up at the Nairobi Hospice as a volunteer in 1994, where she helped patients with terminal illnesses.
She was pleasantly surprised by the totally different approach of the workers at the hospice to patient care.
“It was a caring approach. They paid full attention, focusing and listening to the patients’ needs and assessing their symptoms without undue haste, which was much different from other health facilities,” recalls Zipporah.
“I decided this was the place I wanted to be and render my services,” she recalls.
She enrolled for short courses in palliative care in United Kingdom, placing her in a better position to offer care to terminally ill patients.
She joined the Nairobi Hospice as a medical officer after which she was promoted to senior medical officer, a post she held for four years.
In 2006, having been involved in patient care, she embarked on a new journey — reaching out to patients in need of palliative care across the country. Together with like-minded colleagues, they registered the Hospices and Palliative Care Association, which has been spearheading palliative care in the country.
“We started with only three staff but now we are about nine and have been able to extend our services nationally,” she saysp.
“Palliative care is about love; showing tender love to patients, caring adequately for them and a tender approach to pain control,” she says.
Her huge contribution to palliative care has revolutionised the way patients suffering from life threatening illnesses such as cancer, HIV and Aids, diabetes, hypertension, renal failure, are handled by medics in hospitals today. The services also include end-of-life care services.
Thanks to her efforts, palliative care services have also been integrated into a number of referral and provincial hospitals across the country.
“Today, a person in a remote village in any part of this country does not need to travel to Nairobi to seek palliative care since we have more than 40 hospitals offering these services,” she says.
“Palliative care offers an enriching experience with the patients. You cry with them, you address their fears and help their families also to cope with the situation.”
However, she is quick to note that paediatric palliative care has been neglected.
“Children too, can benefit from these services hence, the need to train paediatricians on how to alleviate a child’s physical, psychological and social distress,” she says.
“Pain, which is now a fifth vital sign has completely been neglected. Patients are just dying in pain yet they need to be informed that they should talk about their pain,” she adds.
For Zipporah, getting the government to integrate palliative care services in public hospitals is one of her greatest achievements.
“My hope is to see palliative care services availed in every health facility at all levels of care,” she says.
Zipporah hopes that every patient suffering from a terminal disease can one day have someone to make life less painful.