When I was in medical school, our medical student association partnered with many individuals and organisations to provide healthcare to remote rural populations in places like Pokot, Turkana and Mt Elgon, as well as to residents of urban slums around Eldoret Town. These camps taught us to give back to society early on in our careers.
Sitting on a primary school desk talking to a mother who was worried sick about her baby’s cough yet she couldn’t even afford the bus fare to the nearest dispensary, and being able to assist was satisfying. We would ride back to campus patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.
The harsh realities of health-seeking behaviour were apparent when we treated patients at the teaching hospital and when we attended to them at free medical camps.
A diabetic would be brought to us in a coma despite faithfully taking their insulin shots, just because they could not store insulin properly for lack of a refrigerator, causing the insulin to expire. A hypertensive woman would miss doses of her medication because she could not afford it, having spent all her money to buy pain relievers for her husband’s arthritis. A little boy with sickle cell anaemia would be brought in a sickling crisis because his cough was ignored for lack of money to seek treatment.
After a free medical camp, I would often ask myself whether it was worth writing a referral note for the woman with a breast lump. She had had the lump for months, and only sought consultation because it was free. Giving her a referral (to hospital for specialised care) simply meant sending her back home to wait for death to come.
It got to a point where I made a conscious decision to only get involved in camps that had a well-thought-out plan to ensure that patients who required further care after diagnosis at a camp, got their medical issues resolved at no extra cost. In such a programme, patients would be supported holistically and comprehensively in a system where financial constraints would not send them back to a life of dejection.
This can only happen in camps organised by individuals or organisations with financial muscle; such camps have real impact and demonstrate that when organising a free medical camp, it is critical to think through how much money is needed to support patients and to solve their medical issues conclusively.
With this in mind, it was exciting to take part in the first of seven medical camps to be held in seven prisons, in Nairobi and its environs, by the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU). The camps dubbed “Keeping the Promise” are in the spirit of giving back to the prisons that hosted the seven union officials who were jailed by the industrial court during the protracted doctor’s strike in February this year.
The first camp was on 30th July at the Lang’ata Maximum Women’s Prison where the KMPDU treasurer Dr Daisy Korir, had been incarcerated. Having had firsthand experience of what goes on behind bars, she was determined to bring a ray of hope to those whom society had cast aside, and seeing the tearful reunion between her and her former cellmates was enough to make us understand why this had to be the flagship camp.
I was a happy participant because I have a lot of respect for the health system of the State Department of Correctional Facilities in Kenya.
During my years at various Level Six hospitals, I interacted with prisoners who came for treatment. Prisoners are regarded as the property of the state and hence have all their medical bills taken care of by the Department of Correctional Facilities.
I met prisoners who did not look forward to their release because they were on cancer treatment and they knew very well that upon release, they could not afford to continue their chemotherapy.
Back at Langata, physicians, ophthalmologists, dental surgeons, ENT specialists and gynaecologists gave specialised treatment to the inmates. The babies too (over 60 of them aged zero to three years), got paediatric treatment. We screened over 70 women for cervical cancer. It was such a relief knowing that anyone who required further care would certainly get it as all referrals made to Kenyatta Hospital would be followed up diligently by the prison medical team.
Prison officials, led by the prison in-charge, Olivia Obel, a woman with a huge heart of gold, showed us what true correction with love meant. We saw talent in yoga, dance, cookery, art and poetry that was unrivaled. Therefore, the union’s gift of a Sh100,000 modern digital public address system was extremely appropriate.
At the end of the day, those whom we had set out to comfort, gave back tenfold in entertainment, food, a 22-kilogramme cake, and happy and deeply grateful hearts. We had fraternised with women who are behind bars for various reasons but for that day, we were all one community and we went home with a huge dose of humility.