KENYA :Karen Hospital new boss: Taking over my parent’s reins

Whilst it’s very cold and gloomy in an apocalyptic way, beyond the large windows of Karen Hospital’s boardroom, by contrast, is warmed by the fire of Juliet Gikonyo Nyaga’s effervescence. Turns out that the snipping July cold can hardly survive in an environment of her glowing mirth.

She is the new CEO of Karen Hospital — ten months in now. She sits in the same seat her mother, Dr Betty Gikonyo, occupied since she and her husband Dr Dan Gikonyo founded the hospital 15 years ago.

Juliet, the second CEO of the institution, has been under the mentorship of her mother in the 12 years she has been at the hospital being groomed for the seat at the top of the table.

She has a Master’s degree in public health— epidemiology from Tulane University in New Orleans, US, a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, and another in psychology. “This is not what I would normally be doing, working in a hospital,” she says. “I was more into public health. But here I am, presented with an important opportunity, so I have to rise to this occasion.”

She is taking on this daunting role with a mixture of positivity, experience, and cheer because “one has to keep their humour in an environment that oscillates quickly from happiness to sadness, from death and life in just an hour. So a day here can be a mixed bag,” she told JACKSON BIKO over tea in the boardroom.

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Your communications lady warned me about your dimples. She said, “be ready – they will distract you, Biko.” From whom do you get the dimples?

[Laughs] My father. The problem is that when men have dimples nobody ever notices them, unfairly so. [Laughs]. It’s not a guy thing but my father has dimples and his mother had dimples. She’s the one I’m named after, that’s her up there. [Points at a photo on the wall]. My grandmother was so bubbly, the happiest person you’ve ever met.

Are you very close with your father?

Very. I’m the only girl. [Chuckles]. I have an elder brother [Dr Anthony Gikonyo, interventional cardiologist] and a younger brother who is a poet. My dad spoiled me but not with materialistic things. My parents were very clear between needs and wants. Do you need or want that shoe you are asking for? It helped me because when I went to college abroad, I didn’t struggle with my budget. The need and want conversation has brought me and my brothers contentment.

But they spoiled us with love and support. They’re our cheerleaders. They were very clear about morals and values. My father is very clear on; what do you believe in? I also learnt positivity from him. He believes that there is nothing one can’t get over. If you have enough focus, keep going. When I was younger I just used to think he used to say those things to get me out of bed. [Laughs] But as I grew older, I realised this guy believes all these things he tells me! I really believe that there is nothing my dad can’t move on from.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever moved on from?

[Pause] I got married in 2009. What’s the next step after you get married in Kenya? Babies! Only babies didn’t come for us immediately yet we did everything. Soon I started wondering; is there something wrong? I went through maybe four IVFs trials {In vitro fertilisation}. Luckily, the last one went well. Then there was another problem. I realised I could not carry another baby. So my second born is born through a surrogate, which I did in India.

For me, this whole phase of trying for a baby and not getting one was not easy. Back to my father, there was always a question of; how am I going to get over this? It takes a toll on you; the pressure, the guilt, you start wondering ‘oh my gosh what did I do wrong in my life?’ You start looking back at your partying days in college. ‘Did I overdo it?’ [Chuckles]. Are these three cups of coffee a day I’m drinking now stopping me from conceiving? That was a very hard time.

I’ve always wondered about surrogacy; will you one day tell your child that they were a surrogate child?

I grew up with boys and now I’m surrounded by boys. I have two sons. I’m destined to be just around boys. [Laughs]. My last born is six years old. At the moment he’s too young. I don’t think he understands the concept of it.

But I suppose there will come a time when he will ask questions because unlike my first-born who sees pictures of me pregnant with him, there is no picture of me pregnant with my second born.

But he hasn’t asked those questions yet but he will as he grows older and learns more about science and how it works. I don’t plan on hiding it from him, I just want the moment to be right when I need to have that conversation with him.

When your mother is the first female pediatric cardiologist in Kenya and your father is who he is, and now they have let you sit on that chair, does that come with a bit of anxiety, or pressure?

A bit [Laughter] I found out my mom was the first female paediatric cardiologist during a women’s studies class in college. I must have been 20 years old. I remember thinking, who have I lived with all my life? How did I not realise who she was?

Growing up, you see your mom as just your mom. I’ve always greatly admired my mom, she’s always been my mentor, but after that I just realised that she was someone bigger than I imagined. I never knew she would one day let me run a hospital, if I knew it wouldn’t have worked. [Laughs]. I came home when I was 30 and she allowed me to have my own life; work in other places before I decided to come work at the hospital. This was her dream and she allowed me to buy into her dream or create my own. I’m still in awe of her. Every time someone writes an article about my mother I read it like I don’t know who she is. I read every line like I’m looking for something new. And she’s always like you’ve read my book, you know everything. I’m just like no, maybe I don’t.

I suppose being the CEO of the hospital must have altered your lifestyle in many ways.

Of course. I have always been in the background even as chief operating officer. But now I’m required to say something and I’m always taken aback. What should I say? [Laughs] I will be honest, I’m now very conscious of what I do or say. I’m not going to go to the Safari Rally and jump around shouting because someone will be like, “hold on, who is that…is…is that the CEO of Karen Hospital? And why is her hair like that?” [Laughs] Yes, that’s dust. And I’m really having a good time, the Safari Rally really excites me. Maybe now I will just contend with watching it from the house. [Laughs]

The position comes with the territory. I did some personal coaching with a lady who told me things I have to change, places I maybe have to stop going to. She said, ‘you can no longer go to that spot, maybe that other spot.’ And I was like, ‘but I love this spot, that other spot is for old people.’ [Laughter]. She is like, ‘yes, that’s your new spot.’ [Sighs].

The funny thing is I took this role during Covid-19, when the country was locked down. Nothing was open, all restaurants were closed. The other day someone said, ‘oh this place is opening up again, we should try it.’ Then two of my girlfriends told me I shouldn’t go. [Laughter] It comes down to making sure that I am the face of the hospital and I have to carry myself in a certain way. Not to say I pretend to be somebody else, because there are certain things that I still love to do and I’ll continue to do them. But perhaps just being conscious.

[Dr Dan Gikonyo walks into the boardroom in a full PPE suit, excuses himself and whisks her away. She is gone for several minutes]

What was that all about?

Emergency. Some stuff I needed to approve.

In terms of leadership, what are you unlearning now?

My background is in public health; community research-based programmes. Coming here 12 years ago was different. You listen and go with people’s suggestions even if your gut tells you it won’t work. But you are new to this and learning new ropes. I’m now unlearning that and listening to that inner voice, to take time to make decisions. I’m listening to my instincts and my intuition.

People say there’s a manual to leadership, there’s really no manual. I’m unlearning the manual. I’m unlearning the idea that I have to get everything right at all times.

After working here for over a decade now, seeing many deaths and all. How has that reflected on how you view your mortality?

As a Christian, I always believe that there’s an afterlife. The problem is that there are two. [Laughter]. Will I go to hell or heaven? It all depends on how I live my life now. Did I use my time here well? I would hope that maybe I’ve spent enough time with my children. I don’t need a plaque for it. Is spending three hours a month in a spa spending your time wisely on earth? Is going camping alone once every two months spending time wisely? Some people might disagree. But what is spending time wisely on earth? I think it’s important to live your life according to your terms. Make a choice and be happy with it. What are the terms of your life? Are you bold enough to live by those terms?

Should the fat lady sing today, and you were to look back at your life, what would amount to saying you lived a life of failure?

First, why do people think this lady is fat? [Laughs] Anyway, for me failure is living in captivity. I’ve been doing Bible study, and one of the themes that we were looking at during one of the months is captivity and what it is that keeps you from allowing God’s will to be done through you. What is that thing that’s holding me captive to achieve the things that I need to achieve? What is it that I need to do to make myself a better person?

If I leave this life knowing very well that I should have done something about a certain situation and I didn’t then I would have failed. Why have I been given a chance to run this hospital? The issue of surrogacy is big for me. We don’t have well-defined laws in Kenya on surrogacy. What will I do about it now that I’m in this position? If I don’t do anything while here, I would have failed.

What are your interests outside this hospital?

I am an inquisitive person. I love to travel, to see things, even just things down the road; a new restaurant, a pig farm… For example Timbuktu, we read it in books, we talk about it. But did you know that in another 20 years it might have disappeared, covered under sand? [Horrified look] Recently, I told my husband urgently; we have to go to Timbuktu! He replied calmly, ‘no we don’t.’

[Loud laughter]. It bores him. He asks me, ‘why do you have to see these things?’ [Laughs]. It’s funny.

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