A forbidding silence hung unbearably over the few hundred inconsolable mourners gathered at St Stephen’s Church, Gatuikira in Ndenderu, Kiambu County.
Overwhelmed by grief yet resilient, the church held a memorial service for 13-year-old Brian Kimani Njoroge Wednesday morning. It was attended by his schoolmates, friends and family, led by his parents Maryanne Wanjiku and Stephen Njoroge as well as his three younger siblings.
Orange candles shone dimly at the altar as Brian’s schoolmates sang dirges. Brian’s brother Stephen Kinuthia, along with a friend, sang ‘Yesu, Master Wangu’, a song they had recorded during Brian’s better days.
Brian died on February 29, losing a gruelling two-year battle with acute myeloid leukaemia. But his death marked the beginning of another battle — the family’s struggle to get his body from Getrude’s Children’s Hospital in Muthaiga, Nairobi where he died.
After more than five months at the hospital, the bill shot to Sh17.9 million. The hospital detained his body, even after the family had paid nearly Sh4 million.
Fuelled by grief and desperation, the family, with the help of the committee tasked with raising funds for Brain’s treatment, opted to conduct burial rites, even as his body remained in the hospital’s custody.
“We have reached the end,” Brian’s father told the mourners yesterday.
At the last minute, the family cancelled the planned burial, opting to just conduct a memorial service, hoping a meeting of the hospital’s board would resolve to release the body.
Brian’s final days were filled with affliction, as detailed by family and friends and captured in pictures that flashed across the screen during the service. Brian, rendered bald by the scathing cancer treatment, chemotherapy, in hospitals both in Kenya and India, yet smiling as if he did not have a care in the world.
Each tribute was as tear-jerking as the next.
Rosemary Wamaitha, a family member who took care of Brian towards the end of his life, eulogised him as a kind boy, recalling how they took turns praying in hospital. Breaking down into tears, she said Brian was in a better place.
“My heart aches with sadness. No one knows the heartache behind our smiles,” said Brian’s cousin, Pauline. With his voice trembling, Brian’s brother Stephen read a tribute, saying, “My dear brother…from worldly cares you are now free”.
“Your suffering broke our hearts, your death crashed us,” said another family member.
Born in 2006, Brian grew up a healthy boy, his family said, actively taking part in activities both in and outside school.
But in early 2018, he became sickly. A diagnosis at AIC Kijabe Hospital revealed he had acute myeloid leukaemia. He was admitted at Kijabe Hospital for two weeks then moved to Kenyatta National Hospital. His health was getting worse.
The blood cancer worsened and the boy was transferred to Gertrude’s Hospital.
At Gertrude’s, Patrick Mbugua, the chairman of the committee that coordinated the raising of funds for his treatment, said Brian became stable, but he still needed more specialised treatment. The family took him to India.
While the first bone marrow transplant in India failed, the second temporarily saved Brian’s life, but at a cost.
The Sh6.6 million that had been raised was depleted. Unable to pay the additional Sh7 million that came with the second transplant, the Indian hospital took away the family’s passports, effectively stopping them from returning to Kenya.
With the intervention of Mr Willy Bett, the Kenyan ambassador to India whom the family coincidentally met as he visited Kenyans in Indian hospitals, the family got back their passports and returned home.
“We really suffered. Our money was depleted, the transplant failed, the hospital took our passports before we met ambassador Willy Bett,” Njoroge said, adding he witnessed several Kenyan families, many with children stricken with blood cancer, suffering.
Back in Kenya, the family was able to raise the additional Sh7 million, which they sent to the facility in India.
Brian’s family, confident the worst was over, held a thanksgiving party. By June of last year, Brian was well enough to return to Jabali Preparatory School, where he was in Class Seven.
But b August 2019, Brian started getting sick again. They returned him to Gertrude’s.
He was admitted from September 21, 2019, to the afternoon of February 29, 2020, when he died. The family was told he had developed graft-versus-host-disease caused by his body rejecting the bone marrow transplant.
“He was mostly in the ICU and HDU, but later in the general ward,” Mbugua said.
His death came with even more pain as Gertrude’s Hospital stated Brian’s body would only be released after the bill was offset.
“We met the management and they said we needed to deposit the proceeds of the fundraiser first,” Mbugua said.
The fundraiser, attended by a representative of the hospital on March 8, raised Sh2 million, which was given to the hospital but the administration would not release the body.
“The chief financial officer, chief nursing officer and chief matron said it was not enough. They asked for security,” Mbugua said. They were unable to get an asset equivalent to the remaining Sh16 million bill.
Already, the family had paid Sh900,000, along with Sh600,000 from NHIF and Sh2 million raised during the fundraising. The family suspended the burial.
But the hospital said it is not its policy to detain bodies of patients in lieu of payment. “In line with professional practice and the recent court ruling on this matter, the hospital enters into an agreement with the affected parents to secure the debt and allows the family to take the body for interment,” it said in a statement by Dr Thomas Ngwiri, the Head of Clinical Services.
It added: “In the case alluded to today, the family informed the hospital yesterday March 10, that the burial has been planned for Friday, March 13, and that they would be in touch on Thursday, March 12, with a payment plan and to collect the body for burial.”
It added the hospital awaits the family for the meeting planned for today.