If Katherine Nyongesa-Watta, 45, followed her dream to be a paediatrician, there would be no female radiation oncologist in Kenya. But she listened to her peer’s advice when she was a student at University of Nairobi (UON), pursuing a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 1995. Not as contempt to paediatrics, her friends reasoned that she should settle for an area that few medics pursue; that of treating cancer patients through radiation therapy.
After completing her course, Katherine interned at Kakamega Provincial General Hospital in 1996 and went to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) a year later as a medical officer and general practitioner. It is here that she found out that there were two radiation oncologists and that they were men.
“I found out that KNH had a good number of staff in other specialities, so I had to choose a ‘rare’ course as my senior colleagues at UON advised me. I looked around and I knew where I could fit in. I worked in the private wing and later joined the cancer centre,” she recalls.
Katherine qualified for a scholarship from the International Atomic Energy Agency through the National Council for Science and Technology. She went to study for her degree in Master in Medicine at Witwatersrand in South Africa and afterwards a Fellowship at College of Radiation Oncologists of South Africa.
She returned to KNH in 2006, where she is now a consultant oncologist. Her day starts as early as 5am. She prepares to leave for her daily rounds in different hospitals around Nairobi: Mater, Nairobi West, Nairobi South, Mariakani, Nairobi Hospital then finally to KNH. Afterwards, she goes to Texas Cancer Centre, a facility she started four years ago. Her visits to all these hospitals are to check on the cancer patients and perform procedures such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“In a day, I see about or more than 100 patients. Since oncologists are few, there is a lot of work to do and sometimes I do burn out. There are days I don’t get enough time to spend with my family,” she says.
Being the first and only female radiation oncologist in the country is not easy, although she makes it seem so. We find her conversing with a doctor in her office in Texas Cancer Centre in Hurlingham. Later on, she effortlessly attends to a breast cancer patient, 41-year-old Faziza Mutinda. Katherine holds a cylinder full of mild yellow liquid, which she explains was discharged from Faziza’s chest.
“I thank God for giving me this opportunity and energy and I want to use that to touch and save lives. It is a big dream, hard work and God’s grace. He puts you in special positions to fulfil His mission. It can be overwhelming though because that means there is a lot of work to do. There are two other women, Njoki Njiriani and Helena Musau who are currently on training in Cape University. I would like to encourage other women to take up this opportunity,” she says.
She says it is always difficult when she loses a patient. She recalls an 11-year-old who would narrate all the stories in the Bible.
“It is always tough. Some patients are lively and I develop a special bond with them. For instance, when this boy died, I asked God why He had to take him. There are some situations that haunt me to date,” she says.
She further adds that what keeps her going is the success stories that have been an encouragement for her to soldier on.
In her daily duties, she discovered there were few facilities and cancer patients would be told to go home and return after some months for treatment, and this is what inspired her to start Texas Cancer Centre in 2010. One of the centres is based at Acacia Medical Centre in Upper Hill, and caters for out-patients only, while the other one is in Hurlingham and is for in-patients. The two centres attend to an average of 1,000 patients annually.
“I came to see that cancer patients are suffering. I have seen patients who are told to come back after two months for treatment. These are among the frustrations the patients go through. I decided to open my own cancer care centre,” she says.
Katherine is also putting up a radiotherapy centre on Mbagathi Way and will be launched next month.
“I hope that in future, we can have more cancer centres and save lives in Kenya and within the region. The Government needs to pay attention to cancer as it does with malaria and HIV and Aids. Public-private partnerships are also necessary,” she notes.
She challenges Kenyan doctors to put up their own centres and hospitals to control the medical costs a patient has to part with in private hospitals and medical trips abroad.
“We have seen foreigners start their own hospitals and Kenyans travel to other countries for treatment. That need not be the case, there should not be a reason why treatments cannot be available in Kenya,” advises Katherine, who describes herself as down-to-earth and ambitious.