Sunday, 1 August 2010


 “The patient is to be married next Saturday, the couple has arranged a church wedding.”  

As a surgeon of long standing, I have been called upon to treat hundreds of accident victims. There were many successes but a few fatalities too.
Naturally I cannot remember them all but the death that followed a road traffic accident on the Nairobi-Naivasha road a few years ago will be permanently etched in my memory.
This is because it had some unusual aspects and caused severe repercussions on the life of Ngengi Kamau and the two families which were involved.
I first met Ngengi under unusual circumstances. He had applied to a charitable foundation for a scholarship to pursue his Master’s degree in pure and applied mathematics. I was the chairman of the board of trustees who had the invidious task of interviewing the many applicants and choosing a few.
“Where will this higher degree in Maths lead you to?’ I set the ball rolling, remembering one of the important criteria laid down by the Foundation’s policy makers.
It was to select candidates whose qualification would lead them to a self-sustaining career.
“What sort of job would you apply for after passing M.Sc. Maths?” I clarified.
“I will teach Maths,” replied Ngengi.
“In spite of the fact that teaching is not a very highly paid occupation?” One of the other trustees intervened.
“I enjoy Maths and I enjoy teaching. So it will be a source of double satisfaction,” Ngengi replied.
“I will also do some research and who knows, I might discover a theory which might change the world.” He looked round and seeing us receptive added: “As you know Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity had its roots in mathematics.”
Ngengi’s voice sounded melodious. Hearing this, one of the panel members introduced a new angle.
“Of course if you rise to the position of professor of mathematics, you could become the Vice-President as happened in this country!”
“That is highly unlikely,” Ngengi replied, “because I am not interested in politics. I am really a scientist”.
“I agree with you,” a lady member on the panel contributed. “Only today I read a quote of President Ronald Reagan, who said that politics is the second oldest profession after prostitution and it bears a very close semblance to the first!”
The interviewing committee seemed to be in a wickedly hilarious mood and I had to bring it back on track.
“Looking at your application, you come from a very modest background. So how did you manage to obtain your without any financial support?”
“My mother has been selling the meagre family silver to help me achieve my goal,” Ngengi replied.
“The last document she handed over was a title deed of a tiny piece of land which was dished out to people like us before the last election.”
Ngengi clinched the bursary by his performance at the interview and his very high grades in BSc. As per the rules laid down by the donor, thereafter, we received regular reports from the university about Ngengi’s progress. He got a distinction in his first year and sailed through when he approached us for a bursary for the second and final year.
“I hope you realise that one of the things we expect from our alumni is that after successfully achieving their academic goal with the help of our Foundation, once they start earning, they will extend the same charity to those who need it. That way we all can perpetuate the vision of our Foundation,” as chairman, I exhorted Ngengi at the final interview.
I did not see Ngengi thereafter until two years later when we met under very different circumstances.
It was about 3 am when my phone rang. “I have a severely injured girl here,” Dr Joyce Mbwana the casualty officer said. "She was involved in a road traffic accident on the escarpment, coming from Naivasha to Nairobi.”
Lady doctors
Dr Joyce Mbwana was one of a rare breed of trainee surgeons on my unit. Rare because when lady doctors look for specialities, they go for “soft landings” like radiology and pathology.
The more daring ones plunge into obstetrics and gynaecology, presumably because they consider it anatomically a familiar territory! Few lost sheep wander into paediatrics – again for their sentimental attachment to children.
Surgery for some reason has been a male domain. It was therefore refreshing to see Joyce break the mould. She also had the making of a good surgeon – sound diagnostic judgement and pretty pair of hands – functionally speaking!
I was quite confident that Joyce could deal with the most major surgical emergencies and was wondering why she was calling me.
“I doubt if she will make it,” she said as if she read my thoughts.“There are some special social features associated with the case and I need your endorsement before I give up.”
“Do all what is necessary and I am on my way,” I said knowing that Joyce must have a good reason to summon me in the dead of night.
“I am taking her to the ICU,” replied Joyce.
As usual, the ICU was a hub of activity.
All its beds were occupied, with patients attached to various gadgets, cardiac monitors, intravenous drips, oxygen tubes and bleeps intermittently going on. Doctors and nurses were working round the clock and consuming mugs of coffee.
Joyce led me to our patient’s bed. I read her sketchy notes made in a hurry.
“Laboured breathing, deeply unconscious, pale, paradoxical movements of the chest, multiple fractures, blood stained urine obtained on catheterisation,” were the essential headings.
They all collectively conveyed one message, which was to make the last few hours of the patient’s life and her passage out as easy as possible. Having made that terrible decision, I asked Joyce, “what’s the other angle which you talked about on the phone?”
Joyce took a little time to reply. “The patient is due to be married next Saturday and the couple has arranged a church wedding.”
Well, I have suffered a few shocks in my surgical career but this one felt like electrocution. I looked at the watch on my wrist – it carried the date and day. The dawn of Thursday was gently breaking.
“The bridegroom is sitting outside waiting to see you,” I faintly heard Joyce. Her voice sounded as if it was coming from a different planet.
I followed her like a zombie in the waiting room reserved for patients’ relatives. I jerked visibly when I saw the bridegroom. It took me a little time to recognise him. It was the way his two interviews had gone which made the recognition easy.
Without saying a word, Ngengi handed me an envelope. Inside was the wedding invitation. I read it and reread it. True enough, Ngengi was scheduled to wed the dying accident victim in two days’ time.
“I am sorry Ngengi,” I said, both my emotions and my words broken. “I don’t think she will make it to the church.”
True and loyal to his pure science, the mathematician had obviously done his sums.
“She will – but in a different role,” he replied sounding forlorn but firm.
Joyce and I looked at each other as we moved away. “I don’t know what he means,” I whispered to her.
“I did tell him that the outlook was grim but in view of the strange circumstances of the case, I had asked for a senior opinion from you. Based on that, he probably made some plans, while waiting for you,” Joyce conjectured.
Passed away
We did not have to wait long to see what the plans were. The bride-to-be passed away the next day and I personally informed Ngengi.
He shed a few silent tears and then said. “Over the last 24 hours, the two families, our friends and I have been thinking. We have decided that the wedding ceremony committee will convert itself into a funeral committee. The ceremonial funeral will take place tomorrow Saturday, the day the wedding was planned.”
He then turned to me and Joyce. “All of us would feel greatly honoured if you both attended the ceremony. You have played such an important role in the last few hours of her life and did your best to save her but fate has willed otherwise. The ceremony will be at her parents’ home in Limuru.”
It did not escape Joyce’s attention and mine that the burial and funeral were now a ceremony.
Eerie feeling
It was an eerie feeling to witness a burial conducted on the lines of a wedding. It was an odd mixture of joy and sadness, happiness strangely laced with tragedy.
Residents of the area, famous for its lush fields, tea and coffee plantations turned out in large numbers to bury the bride, one of their own.
Jessica was dressed in her bridal gown, net, shoes with flowers spread all over her.
Ngengi and his best man wore black suits which were obviously tailored for the wedding. Charged with high emotion, the guests watched the ceremony conducted with dignity and gravity. Finally the pastor addressed the gathering.
“This is the first time I have conducted a burial service which was initially planned to be a wedding ceremony. In our faith, when nuns take their final vows, we consider them wedded to Christ. Similarly this celebration of Jessica’s life is her marriage to Christ. Although she is not with us today, her presence is keenly felt and in fact she is the chief guest, as she would be if she were alive.”
As we threw soil in the grave, I heard the priest chant. “Dust thou art to dust thou returneth.”

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