Bob Collymore recently had a sit-down with members of Kenya’s media fraternity where he shared his story with them as a show of gratitude for the restraint they exercised during the incredibly tough period of his diagnosis and treatment, respecting his family and his privacy.
Bob had been feeling unwell for weeks. He remembers having his temperature spiking, there were several incidences of shivering and trembling as well as pain in his joints including his shin. His wife, an expert in self-diagnosis immediately called Malaria. Her mother, his mother-in-law endorsed the diagnosis and that was that for a while. He was still under the weather and so he went to see a doctor. The doctor was convinced it was just a vitamin D deficiency, a diagnosis that did not sit well with Bob. He opted to listen to his intuition and sought a second opinion from a doctor in Nairobi Hospital. The physician ran a battery of tests before eventually informing him that they had determined the problem was with his blood.
Bob was relieved that at the least they now had an answer. He assumed it was something they could just fix in a short time. It wasn’t to be so. The doctor was clear that he needed to speak to a blood specialist and soon. Immediately. At this point, Bob was beginning to see how serious this potentially was yet his mind kept going back to all he needed to do given that Safaricom was approaching the end of the year. He needed to get his affairs in order in Safaricom. The doctor put him in touch with a blood specialist in London and he was gone. His wife dropped everything and left with him. She was by his side the entire duration of his treatment.
In London, the doctors diagnosed him with Leukemia. Cancer of the blood. What would ordinarily be a chilling diagnosis for most people was for him received with heavy pragmatism. The way he saw it, he had it, he had it. He was told he would need to be there for six to nine months. This was difficult for him to hear. He’d still kept hope alive that the treatment would take a short period of time. His immune system was completely shot so he had no ability to fight off infections. His body was not producing white blood cells as required. He was subsequently put in a negative pressure room with a heavily restricted diet. He could only eat select raw fruits and all his food had to be cooked. He spent most of that time isolated with just his thoughts to keep him company.
He had to go through three rounds of a chemo a day. He lost his sense of taste and with that his appetite. He was fortunate not to lose all his eyebrows. He also had to undergo a stem cell procedure. The procedure generally requires the donor match to be 100% and he had his match flown in from the US. Work still needed to be done at Safaricom and so apart from three weeks when he was too weak to work, he was in contact with the Safaricom managing team the rest of the time through video conferencing.
His family went to visit him including his daughter and step-daughter. His ex-wife was the one to tell their daughter that her father had a problem with his blood. For his step-daughter, they dodged telling her for a while but eventually told her it was Leukemia. When she found out that was cancer and asked him, he confirmed it but maintained that it didn’t change anything because it was still everything he had told her about earlier.
Nine months later, Bob is in remission and back at work in Safaricom. He’s had to make a few changes including limiting social gatherings, he has to stay away from children, does not shake hands and does not eat at buffets. His immune system is still too weak. He’s working more from home, taking shorter meetings, taking extra care to maintain balance in his life and spending more time with family. His wife is extremely protective of him, making sure he takes care of himself and doesn’t overexert himself.
He opened the floor to follow-up questions from those present and reflected on his experience post-cancer. He reflected on the Kenyan healthcare situation and what this is generally like for the average Kenyan from misdiagnosis to the high cost of treatment. He shared a heartbreaking story of a time when Safaricom held a free breast cancer screening drive and in that place, many women did not take up. When asked, the women responded with a question of their own, what next after they are screened and told they have cancer? What are they to do with that information? He also spoke about the incredible sacrifices made by spouses and caregivers. His wife dropped everything and left with him to go to London. She was with him every single day.
He opened up about Safaricom’s health care policy and revealed that his colleagues and their spouses who have cancer get similar treatment options. He revealed that they currently have six people undergoing treatment, two of whom are spouses of colleagues. He was quick to point out that Safaricom’s involvement in health is not because the CEO suffered from cancer problems. He added that just because the CEO suffered from cancer problems does not mean that that is the direction the company must now go in, there are many problems around including HIV/Aids and others which need our involvement.
On the question of Safaricom’s involvement in cancer treatment going forward, he pointed out that Safaricom’s innovation unit has always prioritized health, education, and agriculture and that will remain the same. He added that they were looking to focus on a couple of areas, one of the key ones being the children at KNH who have been abandoned by their parents because they are unable to afford the cost of health care. Safaricom hopes to raise awareness on the matter and also provide support for families and caregivers. Reflecting on his wife’s sacrifice he emphasized the need for a support group for families. He said they would go in as Safaricom. They would remain involved.
There is so much to unpack in his story. We could talk about the rise of cancer and our junk food diet. We could talk about the correlation between one’s reaction to the cancer word and one’s ability to access quality healthcare. We could talk about Kenya’s healthcare system from misdiagnosis to access to drugs to our singular national hospital serving all 40 million of us excluding of course those who go to London, India, the US et al. in order to access quality healthcare. We could talk about all that and more but I’d like to about something Bob mentioned in his speech. He said that while he was in London, his doctor told him that if he was a resident of the country, the doctor would have just treated him under NHS- the National Health Service which would have been cheaper and inexplicably better in terms of overall quality of healthcare availed. So it was incomprehensible to me when Bob said that we – Kenyans- cannot have free healthcare because of what it costs to train doctors. Let’s put a pin in that and first talk about how the NHS works.
The NHS is a rare example of truly socialized medicine. Health care is provided by a single payer — the British government — and is funded by the taxpayer. All appointments and treatments are free to the patient (though paid for through taxes), as are almost all prescription drugs. The maximum cost of receiving any drug prescribed by the NHS is $12. Bob had a chance to see this at work, had his doctor confirm to him that it works then he comes back and tells us that we, as Kenyans can’t have that. Raise your hand if you’re well and truly bewildered.
We need to begin to dream about our healthcare system and what we would like to see happen. We need to look at what others have done and are doing and begin to believe that it’s possible for us. We need to stop listening to experts and the elite who are more than able to fly to London for treatment. When Bob was speaking, he acknowledged that the diagnosis would be very different for a poor Kenyan. The diagnosis would be totally different for most Kenyans not just those the government considers poor. Health: Why Access To Drugs Is Vital In The Fight Against Cancer
It’s wonderful that Bob is in remission and that he was so gloriously positive from the time he was diagnosed but the truth is for the ordinary Kenyan, the C-word is a massive word that completely changes your life, in every way and in ways that could be decidedly permanent. Let’s imagine what’s possible. Let’s dream together. Let’s start at Free Healthcare is possible for us, for Kenyans. Then maybe we can gather enough courage to demand it of our leaders.