From Gold to Platinum

Joseph Aluoch
Dr Joseph Aluoch at his Nairobi Hospital office. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

There was never any question in Dr Joseph Amolo Aluoch’s mind on what he would become when he joined Makerere University in 1963. His plan A was to become a doctor, so were plans B, C and D. He graduated in 1968, did a postgraduate degree in respiratory diseases at Royal Brompton Hospital, University of London, then internal medicine in Edinburgh, then Wales, Prague, New Delhi, and back to London. He has been a chest specialist for 50 years and has chaired numerous medical associations as well as being vice president of Commonwealth Medical Association East and Central Africa. At 75-years-old, he still goes to the office, does his ward rounds and loves medicine. His office at Nairobi Hospital is a mini-museum of awards, plaques and photos of family dating back to 1945. A proud and expressive man, he is happy to walk you through each one of them if you have time as JACKSON BIKO learnt.

You have been around for a while, might you know where the English expression “the good doctor” came from?

Good doctor? Never heard of it. But going back to the history of medicine, we can see why doctors are called good. Medicine was kind of a voluntary thing. Most doctors were self-made and self-trained. One would learn the job from the elders. So in the Hippocratic Oath, there's a section that says you must be prepared to teach other people. Because this is not like witch doctor’s trade which was kept a secret.

Over the five decades, has your personal ethics collided with your Hippocratic Oath?

Initially, doctors were never employed and the oath was allegiance to the patient. But now doctors are employed, they have a contract and the patient is the employer. Over the years, this has caused a lot of problems because there is medical ethics and employer ethics.

Take for example during the Nazis, the doctors working in the army of Hitler took orders from him regardless of their ethics. When I was employed as a medical officer, we had to supervise corporal punishment even though I found it wrong.

As a doctor we’d go to the police cell, examine the convicts and say if they were fit to be caned. I'd sit there and watch them get 20 strokes of the cane, naked, with a cloth dipped in salty water tied around to enhance their pain when their skin cut. Men would pass urine, stool or even pass out.

What about medicine seduced you?

My father was a medical person; very smart. You can see from this photo. {Shows an old photograph} In my autobiography (“In The Footsteps of My Father”) you will learn that mine was not rags to riches. I was never a shepherd's son, we were not poor.

This photo that dates back 74 years ago, we are seated at the same table with mzungus. We are having what’s called high tea. So my story is completely different. I always say I moved from gold to platinum. (Chuckles) I went to Makerere University when it was one the best schools in the world. I had distinctions in biology, physics and chemistry. I have always either been number one or two and never had to apply for employment.

I have practised nothing but medicine, never had any interest in doing business like some of my colleagues. I have no interest in buying farms. I’m not a businessman, I’m a professional.

It seems like you've never had to struggle for anything in life, is that correct?

You could say that. I don’t remember where I have struggled. I have three children who have not given me any problems, my wife {Justice Joyce Aluoch} has had a great profession. I married her as a university student, seen her rise up until she became a judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

How did you meet?

Her father and my father were drinking mates. Her father was a provincial commissioner, before independence. My father was the assistant of governor's sergeant. That was not a small job those days, to clean the shoes of a mzungu and to sit with him on a table …

Obviously all these awards must somehow translate to good financial gain?

No. These are honours. If I was looking for money I would be in business. It’s an appreciation and sometimes this speaks louder than money. Even a thief can get money. But these, this is happiness. It’s not a bank account that determines how happy you are. No amount of money can buy you somebody's honour.

What's the one thing you'd like to be remembered for?

Mentorship. Almost every prominent doctor here has been my student or has had some of my mentorship.

What do you do to unwind now?

I play golf. I’m in many social associations, like the Nairobi Club. I’m also a member of Karen Country Club. I’m also involved in a lot of development projects.

What have you learnt about raising three girls?

Let them develop their own talent, don’t force them to do what you want. Things have changed. Parents need to appreciate that they can’t raise their children how they were raised. The only permanent thing in this world is change.

I saw a case where a girl wanted Sh1,000 to go to a disco but the parents refused. At night, the girl tried committing suicide by drinking all the alcohol in the house and she spent two weeks in ICU. Guess how much the bill came to? Sh2 million. The parents could have given her the Sh1,000 and let her go out and save the Sh2 million.

Has the Internet helped medicine?

It's dictating medicine. The first stage to the development of medicine was chemistry. Concoction and drugs for treatment. The next stage was physics, that is equipment and instruments. Talk of X-rays, MRIs, CT-scans, PET Scan, endoscopes etc. We are on the third development stage which is information technology. We have Dr Google, digital monitoring … Now I can check someone’s heart, blood sugar in Garissa from my office. We don’t have to send tissue specimen to Europe any more, with a digital microscope, a pathologist in Germany can examine it from there.

What's your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is also this Internet, because we're going to lose personal touch. People are just going to behave like robots.

You seem content, or is it happy?

By nature, nothing bothers me. Some people will just be miserable for nothing. Some people like me are just happy for anything.