Dr Ombajo at 40 shining in a storm

Fate and fortune have a mystic way of placing people in paths they never anticipated. Paths that either overrun or streamline their life. This could not be truer for Dr Loice Ombajo, the head of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Kenyatta National Hospital.

Never in the 15 years of her career in medicine had Dr Ombajo pictured herself at the centre of a fight against a global pandemic.

Enter the coronavirus and now she has a monumental burden resting on her shoulders. To put her role in context, the country has for eight months now looked up to her for advice on how to navigate the viral marshland—with the least 

number of casualties.

In comparison terms, she may be Kenya’s Dr Anthony Fauci. Her unyielding cheer and buoyant manner though belies the enormity of the task that fate thrust at her doorstep.

In May this year, Dr Ombajo told a restless nation that Kenya’s battle with the virus would become worse before it got better. Have we seen the worst of the pandemic four months later? Where are we?

“Our worst period was between mid-July and early August. At the time, we had many seriously sick patients. In Nairobi, all the Covid-19 units were full of patients,” she says.

In May, Kenya dreaded hitting 10,000 positive cases. Four months later, the country’s caseload is inching closer to 40,000. This did not come as a surprise to her.

“We knew we’d get here by this time, or even beyond 40,000 cases. This has meant that we had more patients to manage, and unfortunately, lost others.”

The last few weeks have seen a decline in the number of new cases. Some argue 

the decline is due to a low number of tests and poor contact tracing. Is the curve flattening finally?

“This decline could mean that a lot of people already got infected but only experienced mild symptoms. It could also mean that people took the containment measures seriously,” Dr Ombajo says.

Even so, she insists that relaxing the Covid-19 rules could potentially put Kenya on the verge.

When the coronavirus broke out, a lot was unknown about it as doctors globally studied the novel virus. How much is known about it now?

“We now know about the transmission and the symptoms. We also have a better understanding of how to manage patients, including those who are critically ill.”

Dr Ombajo, however, admits that the virus is “still in its early days” and that “a lot is unknown” about it.

“For instance, can someone get re-infected?”

At 1,000 mark this week, Kenya had the sixth-highest statistics of infected healthcare workers. How does she deal with the anxiety of being infected?

“As doctors, we’ve learnt that when you take adequate precautions, such as having your personal protective equipment (PPE), you minimise the risk of infection.”

In the earlier stages of the pandemic, her life was a marathon.

“I’d be writing management guidelines late into the night and advising the Ministry of Health on managing the pandemic. I’d receive multiple phone calls from panicking relatives and colleagues who needed reassurance.”

There were media interviews too to reassure the public, and Dr Ombajo had to learn to calm people down even as she dealt with her anxieties and stigma. On most days, she was working for between 16 and 20 hours.

Given the erratic nature of the situation, she says she has had to work twice as harder.

“But things are a bit calmer now. I try to get at least seven hours of sleep on most nights.”

“It has been a very steep learning curve, and we had to read a lot of materials and to consult colleagues outside the country who had some experience.”

But it is the stories about frontline healthcare workers abroad who were getting infected and dying in frightful numbers that scared her the most.

At a time when most professionals had more time to spend with their families, the mother of a 10-year-old son was busy looking after the country, both at the technical and social levels. Her family, she tells me, had to contend with her long absence.

“My son is at a stage where he needs a lot of attention from me, which I was unable to give,” says Dr Ombajo, who turned 40 recently.

If anything, the pandemic has exposed human fragility. I wonder what her soft spot is. She jerks in her seat.

“Fear,” she says, somewhat lost in thought. “Covid-19 has inspired fear in all of us. Being on the frontline, I live with the reality that I’d get sick. What would happen to my family if I did? This is one of the toughest challenges I’ve had to deal with.”

When she is not worrying about scientific models and observing virus behaviour, Dr Ombajo cooks.

“I’m very good at cooking chicken and fried rice. I like to make roast beef too,” she says.

“I enjoy hosting people at home and cooking for them. Sadly, I can’t entertain people now.”

To compensate for this, Dr Ombajo and her family have been picnicking at Ngong Hills among other places.

She is well-travelled. Taking a cruise ship across the Mediterranean from Egypt’s Port Alexandria via Greece “which is very beautiful” and Morocco

and back had the biggest impression on her.

“I’d like to do more of leisure travel than work-related trips,” she says.

Her attempt at tennis flopped, although she hopes to swing her racquet soon because “Covid-19 has taught us to enjoy life when we can.”

Hers is an immense responsibility to contribute to the fight against a pandemic, at the very highest level.

“Being called upon to advise people and even fellow doctors on managing the disease isn’t something I’d seen myself doing at the start of the year,” she says, adding with a big laugh, “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”

On professional downturns, she admits that there are times, as a young doctor when she missed diagnoses or lost a patient “I thought I could have saved them.”

If unmasked

Aside from being a doctor, she is a member of the faculty of medicine at the University of Nairobi, where she teaches at both graduate and postgraduate levels.

“The higher you go, the more you’re called upon to serve. As a teacher, I have to mentor my students to be better.”

When I enquire about what would remain if her doctor’s coat, role as a mother, and a lecturer were removed, she says: “A simple, mostly happy, person.”

This simplicity could not better be demonstrated than through her favourite literature: fantasy and love.

“I like Chimamanda Adichie’s books. The ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ made me cry and laugh. I read a lot of Robin Sharma and John Grisham’s books back in the day,” she says almost transported into the fantastic imaginary world.

If she could spend a fortune on a single item, “I’d buy myself a Range Rover Velar, my dream car” although “my taste for cars now is largely influenced by my son’s.”

At this stage in life, what is it she is finding hard to tolerate?

“Sloppiness,” she says, “if you’re going to do something, go ahead and do it well. There are no excuses. I push myself very hard and sometimes I expect so much from people.”

On a scale of thoroughness, she gives herself a score of eight out of 10.

The value of good relationships with family, friends, and colleagues has been the sum-total of lessons from Covid-19 and life, she says.

“It’s from them that I’ve had the strength to deal with difficulties and even stigma at this time. When everybody was scared, they offered the necessary support,” she says.

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