Ode to a professor who served humanity with all his heart


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He was easy-going in the operating room with students, and drew a smile from his patients.

Wednesday March 18 2020

Last week Kenya lost multiparty bastion Kenneth Matiba, a hero to many and perhaps, not to others. He was hailed in the media as befits a person of his stature.

While all eyes were trained on Matiba’s story, the medical fraternity lost its own hero, Professor James Bill Onjua Oyieke.

Although Prof Oyieke left this world silently, his death evoked a deep sense of loss among those who knew him. He lived a quiet life, but his passion for his job left a mark on everyone around him.

I first met Prof Oyieke during my induction to the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Nairobi, where I had enrolled for my postgraduate training.

He was always neatly dressed, under his white coat and always donned a trademark red bow tie that earned him the nickname ‘Prof Bow tie’.

FULL OF ZEST

He was one of four professors in the department at the time, but instead of being intimidating, he accommodated and engaged with everyone with ease.

Being on rotation on his team for three months each year was more than enough time to appreciate his dedication to his work. He was present and full of zest at every class, every teaching ward round and every specialist clinic.

During ward rounds, he would talk to the patient with singular focus, asking all the pertinent questions and taking his time to explain the condition and the treatment decisions that had been made.

He would tease the patients and make sure he drew a smile from each one before moving on.

I appreciated his passion, a resource that I took advantage of often, knowing that he would never say no.

I called him on phone to consult on the care of a patient even when he was not on duty.

Many times, I learnt that he had excused himself from a meeting or conference to respond to my queries.

He not only helped me manage the patient, but took time to teach me, even on the phone, and he was never in a rush.

Being scheduled to operate with him was always a treat. He made the most complicated of surgeries seem so easy, yet the science at the back of my mind would be a constant reminder of the Herculean task he was undertaking.

EASY-GOING AND MEMORABLE

He was easy-going in the operating room, teasing the young students under his charge, but always making a point that you would never forget in the course of your career.

It was during one of these theatre sessions that the man behind the title began to peep through.

He loved his family to a fault, and was especially proud of his daughters. He had a soft spot for girls, seeing as he treated us like his daughters. But what was amazing was his passion for music.

Professor was in love with classical music. He sang in his church choir and attended all classical music concerts without fail. He made time in his busy schedule to attend choir practice every Thursday.

He told me that in life it was important to pursue two passions: One, the career you chose and the other, the one thing that relaxes you.

I made a point of watching him steeped in his musical passion and was amazed to see him in his element on stage.

Just like when he was with his patients, when he was singing or watching a performance, everything else faded into the background.

It took a lot of cajoling to convince him to let us film him for a trial series showing doctors excelling in other spheres away from the hospital.

Unfortunately before we could get started, Professor fell ill. He postponed the shoot without letting us know why, but assured us that he would be back for the shoot once he had sorted out whatever he was dealing with. I only learnt much later that he was seeking treatment abroad.

HEALTH

The news of his ill health left the fraternity shaken and everyone rallied to support him as best they could.

He battled it out bravely and came out a victor, and we celebrated his recovery jubilantly. We were not ready to let go of our mentor, teacher, father and friend.

We wanted to continue seeing his name plate on his door at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, where he had been a member of staff since 1975. We could not imagine him not being a part of the faculty.

He gave us a full year of hope before falling ill again and bowing out of the race.

We may not comprehend the sense of loss that his family feels but we stand with them. We got to savour a piece of him that we wouldn’t trade for anything.

I may not know his family personally, but I knew the members through the eyes of a father and grandfather who would give anything for his family.

Prof also had a larger family, having presided over the arrival of a good number of young adults walking around in various maternity wards across town.

Several women owe their health to him, having stood at their bedside at their point of need and given them his knowledge and skill so selflessly.

As we eulogise our public figures, let’s also pay homage to those who serve humanity.

They may not have made it to the front pages of the papers, but they touched thousands of families whose kin needed medical care.