Cardiologist with a big heart

Consultant Physician/Cardiologist Prof Elijah Ogola on April 25, 2017. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
Consultant Physician/Cardiologist Prof Elijah Ogola on April 25, 2017. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

Elijah Ogola, the Vice President, Pan African Society of Cardiology, is a professor of cardiology and internal medicine at the University of Nairobi. He’s the previous chair of Kenya Cardiac Society and the governor, African Chapter of the American College of Cardiology. He runs a medical practice on 5th Ngong Avenue, Nairobi. JACKSON BIKO met him in his office to talk about what he’s doing in May for hypertension.


I asked a doctor friend of mine who you taught in medical school what people think of you in the profession and she said, “He’s one of the few professors who doesn’t have “The god complex” …

(Chuckles). That’s kind of her to say.

She also asked me to ask you how you stay sober and grounded?

It’s an issue of personal belief and why one got into the profession which is to do something for the health of the population and part of doing that is mentoring successive generations. Intimidating them or like you say playing god is not the right way to mentor them.

I know you are raring to tell me about May Measurement Month and hypertension, so shall we?

Sure. First statistics; one in four adults in Kenya is hypertensive now. Beyond 50 years, it is one in two persons. There is a misperception that these are diseases of the affluent, they’re not. What are the risk factors? Some are behavioural, some are physiological. We have poor eating habits, smoking habits and alcohol intake. The consequences of these is what we call the physiological things; abnormal weight, high level of sugar, high blood pressure... These of course ends up with a stroke, heart attacks and all that. The good news is that there are things we can do to reduce that risk.

Know your sugar level, your blood pressure level, your weight. That’s what May Measurement Month is about. We want to screen about 25 million people globally and 150,000 in Kenya, an exercise by Kenya Cardiac Society in collaboration with various stakeholders including the Ministry of Health. So we will conduct it in places of worship, universities, markets, hospitals etc.

You’ve been a cardiologist for 38 years and experienced pre-Internet and post-Internet. How’s that affected practice of medicine for instance?

During pre-Internet, you had to have a physical library. Imagine if you’re practising medicine in Makueni, or in Migori, that clearly is a challenge. Now we have access to information easily.

Has post-Internet brought about annoying knowy patients who have filled their heads with medical literature they have picked online? Has that affected how you relate?

(Chuckles) Well, an informed patient is the best patient. But maybe a small downside is that what goes into the Internet is not verified. Anybody can Google hypertension. If Ogolla decided to put some weird things about hypertension, there’s nobody who filters what’s right or wrong. We as doctors need to have continuous dialogue with our patients. Sometimes the mistake that many of us do is that we look at our patients like “who are you to have this information?” (Laughter). That’s not right. Talk with the patient,“Okay, you might have found it there, but the evidence says something else.”

There’s always the old conversation about religion and medicine. Is there a point in your career when you saw the distinct hand of God?

Aah… tough question. I always tread carefully when it comes to religion, because it’s a bit sensitive. First, I have to say I don’t think we —doctors— are god. The profession can be tough; long hours, difficult circumstances, you see pain from your patients and their families. I think what makes it worth it, maybe, is that some of us have made the monetary bit.

When some people get healed after a very desperate situation, that is what I would call the God’s hand. Obviously, having been in practice for a long time, you see it many times and you just say, “Thank God.” I mean, a grateful family will say, “thank you so much for what you did.’’ But sometimes, you actually reflect, you didn’t do anything particularly out of the ordinary. So yes, that’s what I would call God’s hand.

Why were you attracted to cardiology as opposed to other disciplines?

(Chuckling) I thought you were going to ask me why I went into medicine in the first place. I think I’m more of a cerebral person. Medicine is more sort of— surgeons will hate me for this— intellectual. (Chuckles). The surgeons say all we do is talk and do nothing. We tell them all they do is use their hands, they don’t use their brains. So that appealed to me to get into cardiology rather than the surgical speciality.

What else do you speak of with such passion apart from medicine?

(Pause) Things to do with— you might call it politics, human rights, equity, fairness, justice… I’m a very political person who never wants to be a politician. (Chuckles) This is because it’s the political space that rationalises our resources, that decides how much goes to agriculture and how much goes to education etc.

Does death get easier after 38 years? Experiencing it, being in its space…

No, but maybe you handle it a little better. But internally it stings especially if it’s a death that you say ‘‘if this guy came earlier, if this facility was there...’’

What are the habits of professors? What conversations do you guys have? Is it very cerebral or do you guys just have normal male conversation?

I try to keep my circle of friends as diverse as possible outside the working environment. So you’re probably more likely to find me talking politics or football than medicine or science. What do professors talk about… I suppose it varies. There are a few who are all immersed in their academia, and I find that terribly boring. (Chuckles).

You are and have been a busy man, made sacrifices to get here. What has been your experience as a father?

(Pause). Honestly, I know my kids would not want to say this because they would think they’d make me feel guilty but I feel that probably there’s a lot more I could have done as a father as they were growing up. They’ve never told me that, and probably they’ll never tell me. I’m just grateful that now that they’re all adults we remain very good friends. Hopefully I did something good.

What would you undo in your life if you were to do it all over again?

I would still be a doctor, still be a cardiologist, still be married to the same woman. I don’t know, maybe I’d be financially smarter than I was. I think… no, let me not invoke the generation. Maybe it’s just me, but some of us were probably too involved in their professions and what have you and we were not streetwise.