DR SAM MAINA THENYA’s suggestion to a Nairobi hospital to start a wing to cater for special cases such as rape victims was treated with a, "why don’t you start your own hospital?" Well, he did. The Group CEO of Nairobi Women’s Hospital spoke to PETER MUIRURI
All Sam Thenya ever wanted was to become a pilot, land a plane in his village and give a ride to as many people as possible.
When he realised that the maneuver would not materialise in the hilly terrain that is his home area, he downgraded his desire to just ‘touching a plane’ with his hands.
Sam never became a pilot but his work at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital has proved to be more significant than giving people free plane rides.
Born in Nyakihai, Murang’a, in 1968, the concept of hard work was instilled by his parents, who were both teachers.
"My dad used to tell me that a university degree was like a key that could open many doors. I would wake up at 4am to revise for my secondary school final exams," says Sam, the seventh born of eight siblings.
He did his A-levels at Alliance High School before proceeding to the University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine. Among his contemporaries at Alliance were Mugo Kibati, the director general of Kenya’s Vision 2030 Delivery Board, and Dr Harun Otieno, section head of cardiology at the Aga Khan University Hospital. Apparently, Harun was also Sam’s best man during his wedding in 1997.
"Harun was such a good friend that when the Aga Khan Hospital went looking for a person to head the heart centre, I personally travelled to Texas in the US and drove 160 kilometres, disregarding a storm warning, just to fetch the doctor," says Sam.
That is the willpower that has characterised Sam, who has never let any odds, no matter how insurmountable, stand in the way of realising his dreams.
In the early 1990s, while serving as an intern at Nyeri Provincial General Hospital, Sam once led a successful strike due to poor working conditions.
"We were made to circumcise boys, perform surgery and conduct deliveries without gloves. That was unacceptable by any standards. I am not one who stands by and watches things deteriorate," asserts Sam. Though things did improve at the hospital, he was soon fired, and rehired later by the hospital.
In Nyeri, Sam liked to live large. Out of a salary of Sh9,000, half went to house rent. Little wonder he attracted the attention of two women who were his neighbours and worked as teachers in a local school.
One of them, Dorothy, was curious about the ‘important’ people who kept being picked up at odd hours by an old Government Landrover.
"They decided to come check out who we were and found me cooking rice and stew. Pointing at me, Dorothy’s friend said: ‘This is the arrogant one’. Dorothy fell for the arrogant one," says Sam in a chuckle.
But it was not going to be easy for Dorothy to date the doctor. Ever on the fast lane, Sam was initially reluctant to allow a woman into his life. He even arranged to take his colleagues for lunch in Isiolo with the intention of hooking Dorothy up with a friend. But Dorothy knew what she wanted — the arrogant one.
Things did work out and the happy couple are parents to two girls: Wakarima, 12, and Wanjiru, nine.
It was while working at a leading hospital in Nairobi while pursuing his Master’s degree that Sam came face to face with an incident that would change his life forever.
One Sunday evening, police brought to the hospital a woman who had been raped repeatedly by thugs. In a lot of pain and having lost all documents and cash, she was unable to pay for her admission.
"The staff was treating her like any other medical case with no regard for her special needs. I paid for her admission and closely monitored her progress. Thereafter, I decided to approach the management and investigate the possibility of starting a wing to cater for such victims," recalls Sam.
The hospital’s reply to him was final: "Why don’t you start your own hospital?"
The idea of Nairobi Women’s Hospital was thus born.
In October 2000, auctioneers descended on Hurlingham Hospital that was facing financial difficulties. Ever optimistic, Sam promised to buy the hospital though he had no coin to his name; only a computer-generated logo and a letterhead for his ‘big investment’.
"When they saw a letter signed by ‘Dr Thenya, CEO’, they believed I had the Sh50 million needed to rescue the hospital," says Sam.
But with no assets, no bank was willing to consider his case.
"My wife thought I was crazy for selling her car to raise capital for an idea that seemed dead in the water," Sam recalls.
In the end he could only raise Sh500,000 but undeterred, he approached like-minded individuals who bought his idea. The rest is history.
Today, there are three major hospitals under the banner of Nairobi Women’s Hospital. Hurlingham branch opened its doors in 2001 while the Adam’s Arcade branch (formerly Masaba Hospital) was acquired in 2009. The newest kid on the block is a 75-bed facility at Ongata Rongai that opened in June this year.
Sam is happy that this country has individuals both in the public and private sector who, like him, can take the initiative and lift a small, sometimes inconceivable idea to a high plane.
"Rather than complain about services, those in the private sector should use their efficiency to influence the public sector. We must move from the complaints desk to the action desk," says Sam.
The positive feedback brought by his service to women is a great consolation.
"Many are the times I have attended seminars and listened to women who say that they may not be alive were it not for the quick intervention given by the Gender Violence Recovery Centre section of Nairobi Women’s Hospital. Fearing that they had contracted HIV, some of them had even contemplated suicide," says a pensive Sam.
As a promising young leader, Sam is a recipient of the 2008 Eisenhower Fellowship Award and Kenya’s 2010 Health Professional of the Year Award.
When time permits, the doctor likes to play tennis or golf or take his family for a holiday in Kilifi, his favourite local destination.