Jemimah Kimeu is the chief nursing officer at Aga Khan University Hospital Nairobi. She is also a midwife, trained at the Kenya Medical College and the Pumwani School of Midwifery.
She is completing her Master’s degree in Health Management. She has 30 years of experience in nursing. Under her, are a platoon of 850 nursing staff that she heads.
She had a phone conversation with JACKSON BIKO about the pandemic and her career.
What’s the wildest thing you have heard about coronavirus?
When people say you that you can treat it with herbal concoctions. That you can boil some herbs and drink and the virus will die. There is a lot of misinformation out there and most of it is ridiculous and quite honestly misleading and dangerous.
Are you scared of what might become of us?
Like everybody, I have concerns but maybe scared at my level would be extreme. I’m more concerned about not just my safety but of the nurses who look after the sick.
I spend sleepless nights thinking about their safety as they go about their duties; housekeeping staff, nurses, waiters, all the people in the frontline.
What are you unlearning about your profession during this time of pandemic?
I’m learning that we don’t know everything. That you can go to school and you can read many medical books, and work in this industry for years and yet something like this will happen and you wouldn’t know what to do. Because you didn’t study it or have experienced it before. There is no handbook.
In January, there is no one person who would have predicted something like this. It was business as usual; we were making business plans, going through the routine and then this!
So, I’m unlearning everything I know now and just saying, you never know what’s beyond that bend. I’m also unlearning not to shake hands, an African reflex I have known my whole life.
Is there something you will never forget in your 30 years as a nurse when you retire?
I don’t think I will forget many patients who have passed through my hands. It’s been a very fulfilling career — from a bedside nurse to a chief nursing officer. It comes with many memories of patients whose lives we have touched but I can tell you that our patients also touch our lives in the most memorable and powerful ways.
Patients have shown me immense kindness. When you are in a situation where it’s a matter of life and death, often you both come out of that with great lessons.
When you have been doing this for so long, do you find that you think about death less?
Not really, because death is a reality. What makes me happy —even when patients die — it’s knowing that we did the best.
I think it must be very difficult when you know you could have done something. I’ve been a critical care nurse for many years, working in the ICU where the mortality rate is high and sometimes you are shaken when you lose a patient who you had known for a long time and you know their family. Those deaths bug me but it doesn’t make me fearful of death, I make peace knowing that there is nothing more I could have done for them.
What has fascinated you most about human anatomy?
The different interactions between all the organs of the body, how they are all joined. Whoever created the body knew what he was doing. The way when your heart fails and all your organs follow suit has always been of great fascination. Everything is wired together, one big system.
What are you doing now as a nurse that you wouldn’t have imagined when you started out 30 years ago?
The level of leadership. I never dreamt I’d be what I am now, the chief nurse, sitting down to make strategic decisions that affect many people. It’s a responsibility I never imagined would come to me. It just goes to show that anybody can rise to wherever they want. That hard work, commitment and dedication pays.
Over the weekend I was having a debate with some friends who felt like the human mind is so powerful that a very sick patient can will themselves to death. What do you think?
Well, that’s a very technical question and I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer it. But allow me to say that when we get a patient we look at them holistically; mental, physical and psychological. Often, all these are interconnected and they affect recovery. Whether one can will themselves to die, I don’t think so.
What’s been your most beautiful experience in a hospital?
When you work in a critical care unit you often have patients who are at death’s door. They have so many tubes on them you can’t even see their faces. Sometimes we have done all we can and they are not getting any better and we just wait for what may come.
But then these people get better and they leave the hospital and one day they come to see you in a suit and you can’t believe they are the same person. You wonder if they know how dire they were? How close to death they came. You wish you took a picture of them in that bed and show them, and tell them, “this was you.” Those are my beautiful moments, when people come out of those desperate situations and they live.
What has bothered you most in these 30 years?
Sometimes, not always, when I see young professionals not looking like they were called. Because this is not a job, it’s a calling. You can’t pay nurses enough for what they do. And so when I see these younger people looking like they just came to work, to do a job, and they look like they think this is something they can just do for a paycheque, that breaks my heart.
How bad will this pandemic get?
As of today, we have 31 cases. We started with three cases not too long ago. These numbers are going further up.
The challenge is our preparation and resources. We have done a lot to prepare for it but is it enough? Is it enough for the small health facilities in other small towns? I think it’s going to get really bad and I’m not sure that we are adequately prepared as a country.
Can love cure a disease?
Love cannot cure a disease, but medicine can. However, compassion and love have their place in patient care. Our job —as nurses —isn’t about just dispensing medicine, it’s about showing compassion and love. Ultimately, all these help in recovery.