On this Mashujaa Day, chances are that as Kenyans, we are going to celebrate the household names for their roles in making this country a great nation and move on but Eliud Kipchoge has taught us that we must thirst to be exceptional human beings.
As such, this year we must make a point of honouring the household names plus the unsung heroes who move mountains in silence, I choose to tell you about the story of Dr. Catherine Nyongesa, an oncologist and the co-proprietor of the Texas Cancer Centre, Nairobi.
Dr. Nyongesa’s story is one of grass to grace, resilience, sheer character and passion, her contribution to the Kenyan society is immense. The indefatigable doctor’s story is also one of inspiration.
What stands out about Dr. Nyongesa is that she committed to helping cancer patients after witnessing the pain of her sister- Cimmone Nyongesa who was suffering from uterine cancer. It was then that she decided that she would pursue medicine and more specifically, a specialization in cancer to make patients’ lives comfortable.
“At the time my sister was really struggling with cancer treatment. I decided that I wanted to help cancer patients and that is how I ended up being an oncologist,” said Dr. Nyongesa in an interview in May 2018.
“Cancer is on the increase and I wanted to form an outfit that would bridge that gap. Cancer treatment is expensive and many patients can hardly afford it. I wanted to offer a homely environment for recovery at a price that patients can afford,” Dr. Nyongesa said in another interview in 2012.
To understand Dr. Nyongesa’s full story, you simply have to roll back the years to understand how far she has come.
Family & Education
She was raised in a humble background among nine other siblings which made it incredibly difficult affording school fees for her.
The oncologist attended Mungechi Primary School before proceeding to Misikhu Girls Secondary School both located in Bungoma County.
“My mother was unemployed. She was a class 5 dropout. Education was the only key to life. I used to trek to school every day thinking that I had to make it out of the village,” Dr. Nyongesa said in 2018.
“At home, we struggled financially but my good performances both in primary and secondary school brought about well-wishers and that is how I managed to achieve my dreams,” added Dr. Nyongesa.
But just like any other hardworking Kenyan, Dr. Nyongesa faced a challenge that tested her resolve to improve her fortunes and that of her family.
After clearing high school, a man interested in marrying her approached her parents with the promise that their daughter was set for life and did not need to further her education.
“I recall that episode vividly. The man who is an auditor came to my home asking for my hand in marriage but I flatly rejected his overtures because I knew that I was the custodian of my own future,” added Dr. Nyongesa.
What’s more, as Dr. Nyongesa recalled another episode that propelled her into working ten times harder into the woman she is now.
“One day my friends came to our home to visit me but my mother refused to come out and great them because she had torn clothes. She said she did not want to embarrass me. I told her it was okay and I was fine with it but she totally refused to come out and went and hid behind the banana plantation in our farm,” added the oncologist.
That was before she joined The University of Nairobi to study medicine. Her efforts there earned her a scholarship to join the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study for a Master’s Degree until 2006 before getting an opportunity to work at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre in the United States.
Texas Cancer Centre
After her studies, Dr. Nyongesa met with her husband, a pharmacist who she has three children with. They both decided to start the Texas Cancer Centre in Nairobi in 2010.
With her husband living in the US and Dr. Nyongesa committed to helping cancer patients in Kenya, the two operate a long-distance relationship bound by both their commitment to medicine. Her family celebrates holidays thrice a year because of time and distance pressure.
The clinic relies on donor help besides funding from the MD Cancer Centre in Texas, the US and offers cancer services at highly subsidized costs making it very unique, the centre has treated 18,000 patients since its inception.
For that reason, the centre attracts a lot of well-wishers including celebrities. American rapper Rick Ross, Jamaican Dancehall artist De Marco have visited the facility and made donations amongst a host of other celebrities.
Another unique thing about the centre is that it treats NHIF cardholders who cannot access the same services in other hospitals since the NHIF board is yet to approve cancer centres making it a nightmare for cancer patients to access treatment.
The centre regularly conducts awareness campaigns and offers free counseling to its patients. The centre also offers basic laboratory and diagnostic procedures, ultrasound, pharmacy, blood transfusion, hydration and palliative care.
Texas Cancer Centre also offers nutritional support, physiotherapy as well as a cancer support group.
Dr. Nyongesa is the first woman radiation oncologist in Kenya and the chairperson of the Kenya Society of Haematology and Oncology (KESHO). She is the clinical coordinator at the cancer treatment center of Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). She is also a lecturer at the University of Nairobi School of Medicine.
She opines that Kenyans spend too much money seeking cancer treatment in India for services that can be offered in Kenya.
“Kenyans spend Ksh10 billion annually traveling to India to seek medical treatment for cancer. If I was given the chance to spend that money to bring the same services to Kenya, I would only require half a billion to set up a world-class cancer centre here and save the public the massive traveling costs,” added the oncologist.