On a hot Sunday in July 2016, Anthony Maina Ng’ang’a finally met a woman who, for a number of days, had been asking him dozens of questions via messaging platform WhatsApp.
The meeting happened at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, India, as Anthony’s systems were coming to grips with adjustments that had been done after a major surgery and the heavy medication that followed.
The operation that was conducted on June 13, 2016, saw 65 per cent of his mother’s liver surgically removed and attached to his, a process that slammed the brakes on a rare liver disease that had been plaguing him for more than five years.
The inquisitive woman, Ms Ruth Muthoni, was scheduled to undergo the same procedure as Anthony’s mother on August 8, 2016, at the Medanta Hospital, about two hours away from the hospital whose medics had operated on Anthony.
Sixty-seven per cent of Ruth’s liver was to be excised and given to her elder brother, Mr Peter King’ori, who had the same rare disease as Anthony.
She had been posing the many questions to Anthony as she sought to understand everything about the procedure, having obtained his phone number from a former classmate.
That communication between Ruth and Anthony, under trying circumstances; that brief first meeting at the hospital in New Delhi, has progressed into a marriage — a love story between a liver recipient and a liver donor that was brewed in India and whose main ingredient is a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis.
When they let Lifestyle into their rented house in Nairobi’s Ngumo Estate for breakfast, it was the 53rd day for the Maina’s since their wedding that took place at the Lily of the Valley Garden along Kiambu Road on December 15, 2018.
The breakfast meeting also came eight days to Valentine’s Day 2019, a day that will mark a year since Mr Maina went down on one knee to propose to her, whereupon her answer was a no-brainer.
We find them watching cartoon series "Family Guy" on Netflix. Ruth, 27, ensures everyone in the living room has a cupful of hot tea and buttered bread before she sits by her husband, 30, for the interview.
WE MET TO SHARE KNOWLEDGE
“When we had that first encounter, I don’t think any of us knew it would end here because, at that time, in the situation we were in, we were just trying to get information and share it with each other,” Anthony says.
Ruth says that they arrived in India on a Thursday and went visiting Anthony and his mother Eunice Wangari on a Sunday.
“They were looking really good. It was just a month after surgery and I couldn’t believe they had undergone the operation,” says Ruth.
On hindsight, she believes Anthony and his mother were putting on a brave face to give her assurance ahead of her operation.
“To some degree, I think they were acting. They didn’t want to discourage us. They were sick but they just wore smiles, something that really encouraged us,” she says.
The two maintained their communication until the day Ruth and her brother Peter went for surgery. Liver transplant operations are scheduled in such a way that the donor is the first to be opened up so that doctors can be completely certain about the quality of the liver.
Once medics are satisfied that the liver is good enough to be transplanted, the opening up of the recipient’s chest starts. Ruth says her surgery lasted 14 hours while her brother’s, which was delayed for about an hour, went on for 18 hours.
Ruth’s surgery having been completed, and as her wound healed, it was Anthony’s mother — her future mother-in-law — who signed as her caregiver.
“She took care of me while my mum acted as my brother’s caregiver,” Ruth says. “Anthony couldn’t visit me in the hospital because he had not recovered fully. So, we continued chatting over WhatsApp,” Ruth reveals.
It took over a month before Ruth recovered enough to move around. In those early post-surgery days, doctors had instructed her to walk a lot. That is where Anthony came in handy. He visited her the same week she was discharged and encouraged her to follow the doctor’s advice.
“I didn’t feel like doing it; but he managed to push me,” she remembers.
“After that, he took me to visit my brother who was still admitted in hospital, and while we were there, it was him who was taking care of me instead of my mum and my aunt. He was wheeling me around in the wheelchair, which was really nice. I think my mum and my aunt felt like I was in good hands. They didn’t have to keep checking behind their backs to see what I was doing,” narrates Ruth.
Those were the beginnings of their relationship.
ln days to come, Anthony would take Ruth to a mall nearby, which they say is the only place a person could find “normal” food because Indian food is typically jammed with spices that wrestle down the palates of the uninitiated.
“He was living about two hours away from me via train,” she remembers. “On that day, he arrived early in the morning and we had breakfast, then we went to the mall and he walked me round.”
IS THIS LOVE I'M FEELING?
Anthony could not help falling in love. He admits that the attachment began when they were exchanging messages on WhatsApp.
The “how are you feeling today?” or “what happened today?” and such questions, he says, drew him closer to Ruth, who graduated with a degree in Information Technology from Strathmore University in 2015.
“She didn’t realise that as she was talking to me, it was also helping me recover better because at that time, not many people would talk to you continuously,” says Anthony, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Dedan Kimathi University in 2014.
“In a foreign place, it can get boring and lonely. So, most of the time I found myself just talking, and when she came to India and they went through the surgery, I felt like it was now my turn to just keep her company, talk to her while she was recovering; just be the comfort that she would need because she had done the same for me,” adds Anthony.
So, who among them was the first to say “I love you”?
“Of course, him,” says Ruth, laughing.
It happened after they had both returned to Kenya from India, their surgeries having been successful.
“In India, she just thought I was taking her out on dates and showing a lot of interest in her because she was the only Kenyan there,” jokes Anthony.
“I thought I was his India entertainment,” Ruth adds in the same spirit.
After they returned to Kenya and she realised that Anthony still had interest in her, she started taking him seriously.
“She saw I was serious and she decided to easen up; because before she was a hard nut to crack. Everything was just ‘No,’” Anthony narrates.
They also think the gods put the odds in favour of their meeting, same disease — primary sclerosing cholangitis.
According to mayoclinic.org, the condition blocks the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the small intestine, which causes liver damage in the long run.
“A liver transplant is the only known cure for advanced primary sclerosing cholangitis,” the site states, noting that scientists still do not know what causes the condition that mostly affects men.
“It is a rare disease. In Kenya, I’ve only heard of, including myself, maybe just three people, four maximum, who are suffering from it,” says Anthony.
The fact that Anthony and Ruth’s brother had the disease, and the fact that their livers failed around the same time, makes them see the workings of a divine force.
“I think all this was in the plan of God,” says Ruth.
“And then there is the fact that a really close friend, whom I’d call a sister, found herself in the same class as Ruth. Those were very rare odds. I’d say that to some extent, fate brought us together,” Anthony says.
His queen, her king
“After meeting her, my life just turned around. She says it’s because I got better, but to me, to some extent, I feel she also has some positive input to it because when you get to this point in life, you need to get focused, and she’s the one who makes me get focused and try to build a stable life for her and for myself. She brought a lot of positivity to my life,” says Anthony.
They are also glad that parents from either side approve very highly of their marriage. Anthony, one of two brothers, says Ruth is now considered the daughter his parents always wanted to have.
Ruth says her mother holds a very high opinion of Anthony.
“My mum says that the one thing she’s happy about Maina is how strong he is; that even when he was sick, he was able to go to work and just try and lead a normal life,” says Ruth.
And how is life in marriage taking them?
“It is fun,” Ruth replies. “Of course, we have been making a few adjustments; getting used to living with one another. But it’s been mostly good.”
“I used to live alone but after the wedding, she came in and we live together. It’s been exciting. It is what I had hoped for, if not better,” Anthony chips in.
Anthony was born in Eldoret but was raised in Nyeri while Ruth has spent most of her life in Nairobi. Anthony’s plight was widely shared on social media ahead of his trip to India, and pictures of his emaciated, discoloured self moved Kenyans to contribute generously towards raising the Sh7 million that was required to facilitate the transplant a success.
The couple is now adjusting to life together, or to “have a very long period of non-conflict” as Anthony puts it. He is currently working with a company that offers financial solutions through technology while Ruth is a consultant in IT.
On Thursday, as loved ones throughout the world mark Valentine’s Day, Anthony is preparing something special to celebrate their love.
“I can’t disclose it now because it has to be a surprise,” he smiles.
Ruth is eagerly waiting for the day. “Since he proposed last year, I’m waiting to see the surprise he has for me,” she says, laughing.
The way the two met is an example of unconventional circumstances that brought people together, who later got married.
In Kenya, there have been cases of people who met at football matches and later tied the knot. There is even a case of people who met through comments on a popular blogger’s platform.