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What it’s like to be a mum on the frontline

Readers Lounge By Caroline Njoroge
Dr Yubrein Moraa Gachemba, an Internal Medicine Physician

As a working mother, having to be away from your children for hours at a time is never easy, but for professionals whose careers demand that they spend more time away than at home, the sacrifices sometimes go beyond just time.

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Internal Medicine Physician Dr Yubrein Moraa Gachemba shares her story on what it’s like to be in her shoes:

The Covid-19 pandemic can be termed as an eye opener and a curse in equal measure. For one, it has brought with it a better appreciation for health workers.

There are many sacrifices that have been made by those in essential services and this season has put their contribution to society in the limelight.

According to Dr Gachemba, we don’t know the half of it, “Being a doctor is a great sacrifice in itself. Being a female doctor, adding motherhood and wifely duties to that equation is a whole different ball game. To be honest, the pandemic has not changed our lives too much, it has just highlighted the plight that is our lives,” she says.

Dr Gachemba has lost a marriage because of the path that she chose to take. Medicine has been a fulfilling career but one that has had one too many sacrifices along the way.

“My daughter asks me, ‘Mum, can I become a doctor?’ and everything in me wants to tell her, ‘Yes! Yes you can baby. Because she can.’ But when I look at the pain, the sharp pieces of glasses, the thorns that pave the road that is this calling, the silent pain we go through and remain mum, I am not sure I want her walking down this road.

“But yes, yes she can become a doctor, I would only pray that she would walk into this field much more enlightened than I was ... than most of us were. It’s not a rosy journey, but it is a fulfilling one,” adds the physician.

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But when all is said and done, Dr Moraa says that, “Motherhood is a beautiful thing, sacrifices and all. So, today, I celebrate all mothers. I celebrate my colleagues in essential services. I celebrate myself and my two gems — my babies.”

Worth the sacrifice

Dr Moraa narrates her journey:

“In Kenya, the number of women choosing medicine as a career has significantly increased over the last two decades. Although more women are graduating, they are still under-represented in leadership positions, senior administrative posts and academia.

Women doctors assume multiple, often conflicting roles that have an impact on their productivity and their physical, social and mental well-being.

For me to get to where I am today, there have been a lot of sacrifices from my own hero — my mother. Having grown up in the small town of Malindi, with a step father who saw little value in investing in a girl child, getting to where I am today has been nothing short of a miracle.

My mother persevered a lot in the hope that there would be a better day for me — someday.

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My most memorable emotional moment was seeing my mother breaking down in public when she was asked to marry me off to a teacher who was to later take me to a teacher’s college as dowry.

‘Why take a stupid girl to a national school? It’s a complete waste of money.’ my stepfather said. She eventually fundraised from friends and a few relatives and took me to high school.”

For the men and women who dedicate themselves to the pursuits of wellness, research and compassion for others, medicine is a calling.

It’s a career nothing short of demanding, a job requiring intense schooling, constant training and a chaotic schedule — not to mention a heavy dose of tenacity and patience.

Becoming a ‘competent’ doctor

Three words can describe my drive as a young girl: focused, curious and compassionate. This was shaped by experiences right from my undergraduate years at the Moi University School of Medicine.

But it was until my postgraduate years at the University of Nairobi where I was exposed to facets of the academic medical profession that continue to energise me every day; interacting with my academic father and great mentor Professor Elijah Ogolla ,  seeking innovation in clinical practice so as to reach people whose lives may be touched, and teaching the next generations of medical students about the miracles of every part of this journey so that they, too, can share in the excitement of the medical profession and being a doctor.

‘Yubrine for us to make a difference in the healthcare policies in this great nation, we have to participate in the politics of medicine,’ Prof Ogolla would say with a chuckle.

Many female physicians argue that creating synergy between career and family is quite possible though mummy doctors have to confront a lot of challenges. For the record, the number of mother doctors is increasing. So, how do female healthcare practitioners balance career and family? I call it synergy and not balance.

Being a female physician, I have lived with conflicting emotions in the chain of gender stereotype.

I started a family immediately after my medical internship. My partner was supportive. My mum and three sisters were looking up to me and so I didn’t give much thought to my own private affairs during that time.

I just thought of becoming a good wife, mother, daughter, sister and a good doctor, so that I could practice medicine successfully.

In three years, I was a mother to two adorable children (one year apart) both born through emergency caesarian sections as a result of pregnancy induced hypertension, I later got into post-partum depression. Yes, it happens to doctors too!

Marriage for female physicians is sometimes seen as something that impedes working as a doctor. I was nursing two toddlers, managing a home and teaching medicine at Egerton University.

I remember one of my then single female colleagues in my department mocking my back-to-back request for maternity leave and complaining of my absence due to the pregnancy-related complications. I was in utter shock! In this tough career, no one should throw stones.

During my first year of postgraduate, I had to attend my classes during the day as a registrar at Kenyatta National Hospital and at night I had to be an emergency department doctor at a private hospital in the city for a minimum of 42hrs a week. We all go into survival mode during post-graduate training; no sleep, families to provide for and young marriages to try and nurture.

Having it all is a dream worth chasing for most of us, but in reality, it is a dream that might as well be written onto a misty mirror — chasing after the wind, we would call it. I would use calm night shifts to cover a big chunk of my course work and catch up with the latest news and advances in medical science.

I must admit my post graduate studies were well covered and I was on top of my game, but I burnt out. Something that we ‘super humans’ have a hard time admitting. I needed help, I needed to slow down, but I kept pushing. And I pushed the limits a tad bit too far.

Towards the end of my residency, I discovered that my relationship was on shaky ground. The disconnect was widening and a lot of things had happened to my family during my specialist training that had been swept under the carpet for another day.

You know what they say, “image is everything”. This got me thinking calmly about what I wanted to do with the rest of my family and professional life. I started thinking about my future, I began to wonder whether continuing with this family and emotional situation was really going to be a happy life or not.

But I was not ready to admit failure, what would people say? Big sacrifices and difficult decisions had to be made. The phrase ‘married to medicine’ results from communication issues. Most of us are not good at that when it comes to intimate relationships — the communication thing.

Furthermore, even in medical practice, being encouraged to conform to societal expectations, amplified such feelings of inadequacy. Some female doctors feel guilty because of their work styles that prioritised motherhood and limited their working time, generating a sense of inequality of workload among their colleagues.

Some experience a sense of shame, as though conforming to prioritising motherhood and domestic matters was somehow an excuse that had released them from discharging their responsibilities as doctors.

I am now in a new season, navigating motherhood, Internal Medicine and Health Advocacy. Every time my little girl asks me if she can be a doctor, I wonder if I’m about to sell her a lie. But, yes she can — I’m living proof! I have had my wins and I have counted my losses. But now I know, I know that medicine involves a lot of sacrifices.

Many female clinical practitioners are working in the frontline, we treat patients diagnosed with Covid-19 and continue to be the voices of the prioritisation of health as an important pillar of national security.

Our routine has changed just like every Kenyan’s routine, and this new routine has quickly become the norm. We are not only dealing with the virus, but also with the psychological impact it has on us, our patients and our society. But in all this, who takes care of the care giver?

The coronavirus pandemic has put unprecedented strain on the families of health workers. That’s just what it is. But the truth is, even before the pandemic, we were still laying our lives literally. It’s a tough world being a woman, and even tougher one being a female doctor.

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