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When the breathing stops

Health & Science

38-year-old Dr. Doreen Lugaliki became the first Kenyan doctor to succumb to COVID-19. [Courtesy, Family]

Deaths from Covid-19 once seemed so far away. We saw it in the news and empathised with devastated communities in northern Italy, Spain and France.

But since March 26, when the first fatality as a result of Covid-19 complications was recorded in the country, the numbers have kept rising. The tears have kept flowing. And families across the country continue to experience first-hand shattering at the hand of the virus.

Now, what experts believe to be a second, much deadlier wave of the disease has upped the ante, changing the rules of the game as it moves from one homestead to another with an ease that has now been normalised by a population deep in the throes of pandemic fatigue.

Among the departed was the 72-year-old former Cabinet Minister and presidential candidate Joe Nyagah whose death on December 11 was attributed to Covid-19.

“We held him, we chatted with him. We then prayed with him and as soon as we finished praying, the world closed on Joe,” his younger brother Norman, a former Kamukunji MP, said at a press conference.

Severe lung damage

His family said that the former minister suffered severe lung damage and was on a ventilator.

“I closed his eyes, closed his mouth too, as he rested. I ensured he died a handsome Joe as he would always joke that he was more handsome than me,” the former Kamukunji MP added.

Joe Nyaga (pictured) was hospitalised on November 17. He died on December 11. His family said that by the time he sought medical care, the virus had caused too much damage. He was buried in Embu county last weekend.

Death is not just coming to those advanced in age or with underlying conditions as science previously led us to believe. The curve is no longer skewed towards this demographic.

Now, young people in their 30s are falling ill from the disease, and dying.

Covid-19 is taking away loved ones and devastating the lives of friends and relatives left behind. One minute you are talking, the next you are no more.

That is how it took Eng Maurice Khisa Namiinda, Kenya’s first documented Covid-19 casualty, on March 26.

Like many after him who would become statistics, there was no warning. He had just returned from a work trip in South Africa and a routine visit to hospital was to be the last he made.

In a few weeks he was buried. Leaving behind echoes from eulogies that showed he was the pillar of his community. Generous to a fault and carried his responsibilities without any complaints. An entire village mourned him. But his family felt it the most.

Beloved actor Charles Bukeko was taken away on the morning of July 18. When, after what seemed like a routine visit to hospital, Bukeko died in his car at the parking lot of a hospital in Nairobi.

By the time he reached the gates of the hospitals, the difficulty in breathing he had experienced had won the day.

The laughs he brought into living rooms disappearing into the next world. Immortalised in the heart of those who knew him personally and in the minds of those who got addicted to his on-screen alter ego, Papa Shirandula.

As we focused on protecting the elderly, Covid-19 sucker punched us.

On April 6, we lost Kenya’s first child to the virus, a six-year-old who had been admitted to the Kenyatta National Hospital.

The virus has not just devastated homes. It has penetrated institutions too.

Nakuru County Assembly lost Hells Gate Ward representative John Njenga to Covid-19 on November 15.

In Kakamega, the county’s Chief of Staff Robert Sumbi died on October 29, showing just how far the virus had travelled in the county.

His death prompted the temporary closure of some county offices with the hope of letting the virus fizzle out.

As the curve rose, medical workers appeared before Parliament, their plight prompting legislators to break down after hearing a status report from practising doctors.

During the session on November 18, Seme Member of Parliament James Nyikal, himself a doctor, broke down after hearing the ordeal that healthcare workers were going through in their battle to contain spread of the coronavirus.

Under threat

Since March 12 when Kenya announced her first case, healthcare workers have consistently put their lives on the line. Risked it all, and ultimately some of them have paid the ultimate price.

While protecting all lives, theirs too have come under threat. Lack of personal protective equipment, a trail of broken promises from government and what has been interpreted as a lack of care from those who have employed them has brought death to our first line of defence.

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have not been spared. With seemingly every week bringing in more bad news. More infections, more deaths. And for Dr Nyikal, and a few members of the health committee, more tears.

More than 2,300 health care workers have tested positive for the virus. At least 30 of them have died. Death’s cut is felt by those who bear it.

But the list of the doctors lost shows just how bad these losses are to an already strained workforce. Of those already lost to the disease, 10 were specialist doctors. Lost within one week.

Perhaps the most visible was 28-year-old Stephen Mogusu (pictured) who fell ill after putting his life on the line to treat those who had contracted the virus.

Dr Mogusu’s death has become a rallying point for other healthcare workers in their constant push and pull with the State over better treatment, better compensation and better working conditions as they go to the frontlines daily.

As he watches from up above rooting for his colleagues, he could be sharing an inside joke with Doreen Adisa Lugaliki, a respected obstetrician-gynecologist who passed away at the age of 38.

Dr Lugaliki was eulogised as a hard worker. A people’s person and a shining light in her profession. Her death was the first among her peers. Unfortunately, it would not be the last, and signified the darker days that lay ahead.

Dr Ndambuki Mboloi, a well-respected pulmonologist followed Dr Lugaliki. He was remembered as a patient doctor. Brilliant at diagnosis and always had the interest of patients at heart.

Dr Daniel Alushula, a trailblazer in Orthopaedic Surgery too went that way. At the time he fell ill, he was the senior surgeon at Busia County Referral Hospital. Those who knew him said he was diligent and humble to a fault and had dedicated his entire life to serving people and saving lives.

On November 9, Dr Vladmir Shchukin’s journey that started when he immigrated to Kenya with his family in 1994 came to an abrupt end.

“Vladimir’s deepest joy was in the time he spent with friends and family. There will be no replacement for the pleasure of his good company, the benefit of his sage insight, and the charm of the music he regaled those fortunate enough to hear him play. With an earnest smile and a twinkle in his eyes, Dr. Vladimir Shchukin will be dearly missed, and his legacy will forever live on in our hearts,” an obituary about the pioneering bariatric specialist read.

Dr Hudson Inyangala, a widely trained Public Health Specialist died two days later. He was passionate about his work. Peers remember him for his professionalism, calm personality, the insights he took to strategic discussions and his pragmatic approach to life. Dr Inyangala was a mentor to many.

Then followed Dr Emarah Ashraf. Pioneering plastic surgeon. Loved lecturer at Moi University’s faculty of Medicine. Dr Ashraf will be missed, not just by his students, but the hundreds of children whose lives he touched.

In the 15 years he spent in Eldoret, Dr Ashraf spent most of his time repairing cleft disorders in children for free. Those who knew him say he had a heart of gold.

Lack of PPE

Dr Robert Ayisi had done his bit in serving the country with a career in public service spanning three decades. Apart from running a successful practice, he had served as the Director of the National Aids and STIs Control Programme. He loved playing by the book.

And when in 2013 he was appointed the Health executive for Nairobi County, his impact was felt almost immediately. He took on cartels and for a brief moment in the history of Nairobi’s public healthcare, things worked. After doing his time, Covid-19 came knocking and he died on November 5.

November also saw the passing of Dr Hudson Alumera, a Periodontal Surgeon who was remembered as a teacher, mentor, friend and icon to the dental fraternity, and generally medical fraternity. They say he was the best. That he was patient and keen. Whenever you entered his clinic, he would engage you with banter. He was a consummate story teller and cracked jokes at the drop of a hat.

Pharmacist Dr Faith Mbuba and Dr Jackline Njoroge too succumbed.

Yet, every day, conversations about lack of PPE never quite goes away. This, even as Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe played hard ball with striking doctors, nurses and clinical officers.

Kagwe pleaded with them to return to work but at the same time said the government may be forced to sack them. While health workers deserve special attention, he said, since they are in the frontline, teachers, politicians and others had also died from Covid-19.

These deaths, and many more within the medical fraternity prompted a call to action from the medics’ union.

Key issues needed to be addressed. Issues of doctor safety and compensation. But nine months since the first case, there is little promise that doctor demands will be addressed in a country whose political class is obsessed with many things. Preservation of life is just not one of them, and families understand this all too well.

Other deaths, apart from those of medics have been turned into rallying calls by their respective professions.

Captain Daudi Kibati, of Kenya Airways, paid the ultimate price. It is believed he contracted the virus during one final last-minute flight to the then virus struck New York. The flight was one of salvation. One that sought to airlift Kenyans back home in a last-minute dash to escape the devastation caused by the virus in the US. Ultimately, though, it proved to be his last take-off.

Four days after getting back into the country, the captain developed a bad fever. He called the front office at the hotel where he was quarantined and was rushed to The Nairobi Hospital where his Covid-19 test came back positive. He died while being put on life support.

He was 62 years. His death was used by the airline industry to advocate for more safety controls in the aviation sector. 

Harrowing tales

Harrowing tales of family members moving from hospital to hospital in search of bed space for their kin will haunt generations to come. Tales of mothers pleading to bury sons that died in foreign lands from Covid-19 will haunt them to their grave. Memories of children, alone, isolated, away from close friends and relatives when burying their parents will linger on in the memories of generations to come.

In some instances, though, it is the questions left behind that add more blackness to an already dark year. On August 7, former Kisauni Member of Parliament Ramadhan Kajembe died from Covid-19 related complications after a symptomatic relative visited them.

Kajembe had just buried his wife Mama Aziza two weeks earlier and his death sparked theories that family members contracted the virus at his wife’s burial. The whole period, a blur to the Kajembe family. 

As Aziza was being laid to rest, Kajembe was being moved to Pandya Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. Nearly two weeks after Kajembe’s death, his first daughter, Langoni Kajembe also died. 

At the time, family members said the deaths were God’s work. While God’s work cannot be disputed, his intentions can be questioned.

And this is what the family of Bishop Elisha Juma of the Kenya Assemblies of God did mid this year. On March 28, the Jumas received news of the passing of their son Peter in New York. Peter was a paramedic but the Juma’s couldn’t burry their son. Travel restrictions meant that he could not be flown back home for a proper send-off.

Three months later, the Bishop too contracted the virus and died from it. Only 90 days separated the two periods of grief for the family.

Kakamega gubernatorial aspirant Mabel Muruli, a champion for women rights too fell to the virus.

Classrooms have not been spared. Tononoka High School Principal Mohammed Khamis died in October. He was one of 11 teachers who tested positive for the virus. Since then, more teachers have died.

It has been almost a year since we started interacting with the virus. We thought we were winning a few key battles, but not anymore.

The war, it seems, has just started and every day, dozens of families try to run away from the grief that has accompanied the loss of loved ones.

With poor control measures, a careless political class and what is increasingly looking like a government that has abandoned its people to fate, the virus marches on.

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