By: Professor Peter Amollo Odhiambo
The first open heart surgery in Kenya was done in 1973. Even when the open heart surgery programme as we know it today, in 1975, a good number of heart patients still went abroad for open heart operations. We however won the bruising battle between advocates of overseas dependence and local development, at the close of the nineteen seventies and early eighties.
We rooted for training locally to guarantee future development. We also focused on work in the entire Heart Unit at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) and delivery of results of open heart surgery theatre. We also formed and registered “Kenya Heart Patients Association” for counseling and follow up, including those operated abroad and did not have any easy access to their overseas doctors! I was the first Patron of the association which was ran by the patients themselves. Unfortunately, the association collapsed after I handed over to the next Patron. The patients/ex-patients had by then increased to fairly large numbers and there were challenges in management!
We not only treated Kenyans but also patients from the entire East African region, including Ethiopia, Zambia, Sudan and Zaire (now DRC) and therefore, one could say that medical tourism in Kenya started yesterday. In 1989 and 1995 I operated on two related Tanzanians from Tabora. I was delighted when the two paid me a courtesy call in my University of Nairobi (UoN) office on 6th January, 2017 (Picture to follow).
Professor Father Charles Nyamiti (seated, centre), was on his death-bed at the Nairobi Aga Khan Hospital, after sustaining a traumatic perforation of his oesophagus in 1989 at the prime age of 59 years. He is now 85 old and is about to complete the 5th Volume of his series of books on christianity from the African perspective.
Gerald Kabogota, his grand-nephew, now 29 years of age and a teacher at Sumwe Secondary School in Mwanza, Tanzania. He was diagnosed to have a heart problem when he was eight (8) years old and missionaries in Tabora sponsored his travel, accommodation and treatment in Nairobi. When he was first brought to us, our systems were down and he went back but returned to us soon after and his operation was a success. At that time, I was the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and had only the late Mr Hasmukh Kamdar to assist me! Local brain drain had robbed us of two trained colleagues (my fist batch of trainees); the others were still overseas.
Something snapped however around the time that I operated on the two Tanzanians; Support from government and local stakeholder institutions became lukewarm and there was aggressive marketing by open heart surgery centres outside Kenya which lured patients with lower charges. Sadly, this has continued but the open heart programme in Kenya has nevertheless grown through the years and the UoN’s Master of Medicine in Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery degree programme produced its first graduate in 2016.