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Covid-19: I beat cancer but I can’t come home

Health & Science

Thomas Mwangi in hospital.

He fought and won the greatest fight of his life, but now he is in a different kind of war – one to find his way back to his loved ones.

His little room is bare; threadbare even. But at least it has a TV and an internet connection. And he doesn’t have to run out to the washroom. It is self-contained. Thomas Mwangi has spent the last 21 days secluded in the tiny space. His mind is running wild, oscillating between intense boredom and terror. Terror because he is 5,016 kilometres away from home, afraid of what the next month or two will bring.

He is one among thousands of Kenyans stuck in India, a country they had sought out for treatment. But the rise of the coronavirus pandemic has made them prisoners in a foreign land.

“We are many Kenyans here. Most of the ones I’ve met came here for medical reasons. We are all friends now, bonded by our problems. Right now I do not know how many we are because we have to stay indoors for our own safety,” Thomas says.

Most times, between mindless pacing, exercising and watching TV, Thomas will stare at his phone. He wants to call his wife back in Kenya. But then he remembers that where he is, the day is 2.5 hours older. And he will pause. But pure joy courses through his veins whenever the screen lights up and he sees the faces of his wife and daughter grin back at him from the other side of the world.

“Seeing them on video chat is what keeps me sane.”

It is thanks to the same technology, that he now speaks to My Health.

Blessed and lucky

Through most of the conversation, he seems pained. But intermittently, he will flash a grin. And in those moments, he looks just like any other young man in his 30s, anxious about his favourite team’s game score. Despite the gloom surrounding him, he knows that his life could have been far worse. He has to keep reminding himself that he is a lucky man, too.

Usually, when you ask a 34-year-old man what the sweetest words he has ever heard are, chances are it may be the flowery marriage vows by his new wife.  Or if he is a gambling man, words from a Betin phone operator confirming a major win. But not for Thomas.  When I ask him the question, he unhesitatingly says: “‘You are now cancer free’. Those are my ultimate best words.”

He feels like a warrior; speaks like one and looks like one.  He has the scars and needle marks – badges of a war recently waged inside his slight frame.  Stage 4 cancer of the stomach was the greatest battle he had ever fought. And he won.  

The cancer had eaten into his vertebrae. The doctors called it adenocarcinoma. For a cancer that has very low survival rates, he knows all too well just how lucky he is.  

“It began with stomach aches that were first diagnosed as amoebic dysentery and then later a bacterial infection (H. pylori) before further tests showed I had cancer. At stage 4.”

And this news sprung his family into action, contributing funds for treatment. Two months later, in September 2019, he was in India at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurgaon.

“I have been through six chemotherapy sessions and 28 radiotherapy sessions.”

Even for a man who chooses to be positive in the darkest times, Thomas admits that chemotherapy was rough on him.

“From waves of dizziness, hair loss, nausea and general body weakness that comes with the treatment, you learn to accept it. Even the bright side of my toes and fingers were slowly turning dark,” he says, but keeps the big smile on his face.


Thomas Mwangi in hospital.

Crushing reality

Thomas is not a man without a sense of gratitude. And if he could be where he wants to be – home where his loved ones are – his happiness would be complete. After all, he knows all too well that good health and family are the greatest things he could have.

Thomas had been set to travel back home exactly two weeks ago. But here he is, biting what is left of his blackened nails and nervously holding his phone, hoping that a call will come through. A phone call from a fellow countryman telling him that he could now come home.

“I was done with the treatments and gearing up for my return when the lockdown measures were put in place to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The money in his account is dwindling fast. And he is slowly coming to the realisation that he is in deep trouble because coronavirus feels like that cousin who overstays his welcome in your house. Thomas knows he may be stuck in India for months to come. And that worries him greatly.

 “I first heard of the coronavirus in January. At the hospital they began taking precautions to ensure that the virus did not spread to patients under its care. They would scan everyone at the point of entry, and every two hours remind us to wash our hands. Then it became serious too fast. There was a day I was scheduled to get some injections to boost my platelets. However, this was delayed because the doctors were busy handling emergency cases.”

And then the Indian government instituted a 21-day lockdown that was to end tomorrow, April 14, but there are reports it may be extended to April 30. For now, Thomas remains in his small guesthouse room in Gurgaon.

He pays about Sh4,200 for the space and food every day. And while he was hoping to come back after the India lockdown was over, he learnt that Kenya had banned international flights.

 “We are all afraid. Some of the Kenyans are really sick but do not know when they will get treated as coronavirus is the priority now.  Finances are also troubling. We are expected to stay indoors and take care of our basic needs …” he peters off.

“There is also a fear that we may have been staying indoors with people who have contracted the disease unknowingly.”

Thomas says some of the Kenyans’ biggest worry though, is that they do not know when they will be treated.

 “The streets are empty. I saw that on TV. If you have to venture out, you wear a mask. Last I checked, the number of infected persons is at 5,000 while deaths are at 147. It is worrying,” he adds.

Have they reached out to the Kenyan Embassy in India?

“No. How? We are all indoors as we try to comply with the safety measures. We can’t get there. We have not heard from the government about our fate yet. But we are planning on contacting the consulate as soon as the lockdown is over,” he says.

In the meantime, he prays that he doesn’t fall sick.

 “I try to stay healthy. I exercise in the mornings and evenings. My biggest wish now is to get back home to my family. But I am grateful I am healthy and can talk to them.  It is the one thing keeping me sane.” 

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