This is the 938th story in the ‘Surgeon’s Diary’ series which made its debut in the Sunday Nation of May 25, 1980. The column has been running for over 38 years, starting as a weekly column for about five years but continuing as a fortnightly column since. Also, September 13 was my 90th birthday, giving me a bonus of 20 years over and above the Biblical span of three score and ten.
For completion, I must also announce here that Marie and I have relocated to the UK since April this year to be near our daughter and son. They settled in England in 1982 and 1983, respectively, when they left the country of their birth for their tertiary education.
They had to do so because the courses they wanted to take — Computer Science in the case of our daughter and Marketing and Management in the case of our son — were not available in Kenya then.
I will revert to the subject of our relocation but in the meantime, I want to ask my readers, the editorial staff and the managing editor of the Sunday Nation if this is an opportune moment to gracefully call it a day with the ‘Surgeon’s Diary’.
Born a ‘Virgo’, I am a highly organised person and, with a few exceptions when I was not in full command, have planned the events in my life and want to do the same with my beloved ‘Diary’. I don’t wish to leave my readers high and dry after a happy association of almost four decades and am aware that they deserve at least a decent notice.
However, I do think that this may be an appropriate moment to say kwaheri. At age 90, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. For though my brain is still functioning to the optimum level, it resides in a body ravaged by age and age-related infirmity and disabilities.
Osteoarthritis of both my knees, which comes to us all if we live long enough, stopped me from playing golf in the past, first reducing it to nine and finally the loop at the Muthaiga Golf Club which comprises only four holes.
This upset me greatly because golf was my only physical outdoor hobby. I enjoyed the solitude of my own company since I often played alone before going to the hospital. I enjoyed the twitter of birds and the fragrance of flowers and the parched soil turned moist by small showers, often articulating stories for the ‘Surgeon’s Diary’ as I walked.
But it is the rheumatoid arthritis in my hands which limits my ability to write and use the laptop. Hands which have carried intricate operation have difficulty in buttoning the shirt. I know there is software to dictate into the computer but that will not work in my case because I was born in BC, not Before Christ but Before Computer.
Consequently, the first draft of the ‘Diary’ is written in longhand because there is only coordination between my head and my hands. Thereafter, it is loaded into my computer and the corrections are made and finishing touches are given on the machine. There are also problems associated with my near vision, essential to reading and writing. I also know that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks! That being the case, I will be forced to stop the column which reportedly has become a national institution and is read online by the Kenya diaspora spread all over the world. There is one additional factor; without surgical practice, there are no surgical experiences worth recording.
Now, reverting to the relocation, over the past few years, Marie and I have been getting mzee very rapidly and precipitately, a fact noticed by us and our grown up children. Last year we went to England to have the British summer and have a joint holiday with them. This had become the family tradition for a few years, we holidaying on their turf and them coming to Mombasa for Christmas and New Year, where we joined them from Nairobi to enjoy the festive season.
When we joined them in England last year, they noticed the physical deterioration we had suffered in a year and they both said in unison. “Mum and Dad, you need constant attention which we can give you only here.”
We saw their point of view and agreed with them and also realised that they could only provide it if we moved to the UK, because when they finished their higher education, they found their career paths, their partners and their homes here; it would be impossible to uproot them. In our case, it amounted to: if the mountain does not move to Mohammed, Mohammed should move to the mountain.
There were two other reasons for our drastic decision. One was that when the children were growing up, I was very busy with surgery, writing and Rotary, Marie’s three co-wives.
She brought the children up like a single parent. Out of the three co-wives, surgery was the most demanding with disrupted nights, weekends and even holidays. That is why I divorced her when I retired from surgery in 2014. I wanted to make up to them and I wanted to pass my twilight years with them. Finally, the furtive feeling that when the time came and chronologically it is very likely that I would be the first one to go, it would be comforting for me to leave Marie to the care of Jenny and Jan. In short, more than the calf wanted to suck, the cow wanted to suckle.
Now to what sounds more like the ‘Surgeon’s Diary’ and in the process explain how Marie vindicated our decision, not once but twice, to make doubly sure!
One midnight, early this year she woke me up, complaining of pain in her lower abdomen. Now a surgeon does not examine his wife from top to toe every time his wife complains of tummy ache but on that occasion I did and just as well, because I discovered a small tender tense lump in her left groin. I had no difficulty in diagnosing the condition; it was a strangulated hernia. Hoping against hope, I thought it could wait till the morning when I would be in a better position to deal with it.
True to its natural history the lump became more painful and having dealt with many in the past, I could visualise the loop of small intestine caught in the neck of the hernia sac losing its blood supply, turning gangrenous and converting a straight forward emergency into a serious one unless released immediately. Also by 3am Marie’s lump became excruciatingly painful, indicating to me that the dreaded complication was setting in.
I found myself at a loss at what to do and rang a surgeon friend of mine, an associate who looked after my patients and practice before I retired and travelled out of the country on Rotary business, which I was called upon quite often. There was no reply but I rang his wife, who was my anaesthetist for 25 years till I retired in 2014. I knew she was a light sleeper — don’t ask me how I knew — but I was hoping that she would be. In any case I knew for sure that as an anaesthetist, she kept her mobile on in case one of her surgeons needed her in the middle of the night. After my call rang for what seemed an eternity, a sleepy voice said. “Hello.”
In reply I said, “Marie has what I think is a strangulated inguinal hernia.”
That woke her up and I heard her waking up her husband who told me reassuringly. “We are on the way and we will ring Nairobi Hospital to send an ambulance to you.”
JD & D, as the couple is popularly called, arrived at the same time as the ambulance. D went with Marie in the ambulance and I drove with JD in his car. Marie was on the operation table within the hour. It is the first time, in my practice of over half a century, I have seen an occasion where a surgeon-anaesthetist couple drove their patient and her spouse to the hospital and then carried out an emergency operation on the patient!
Less than a month after that sorry episode, Marie sprung another sad surprise on us. She slipped on the carpet in our bedroom, fell down and re-fractured her old compression fracture in the lumbar spine at 6am on March 7.
Apart from the severe pain and hospitalisation of two weeks, it put our planned flight on April 14 in jeopardy. Jenny flew to support me during Marie’s hospital stay. Jan, with his totos, was planning a safari at the world famous Mara, and then with Jenny escort us to the UK. We kept to our plans with the help of our two children and the flight crew who all were very supportive.
Against many odds, we are relocated in Walton on Thames by the river, a few miles out of London. Walton is 20 minutes from Waterloo by a fast train and about the same time by car from central London when the traffic is quiet.
As I was writing this column, a neighbour rang to tell me about Kenya’s latest marathon triumph both in the men’s and women’s competition.
We are obviously keeping in touch with beautiful Kenya where we spent a major portion of our life and passed 57 glorious and happy years in the land we love and cherish.