Do you believe in miracles? Have you ever had a miracle that brought you such a wave of joy that you felt your heart was about to burst? The kind of joy so overwhelming you pinch yourself just to make sure it is not a dream? The kind that makes you want to jump up and down and scream your lungs out on top of the highest roof top? You get the drill…and I am certain you all have experienced such a joy. It’s the same kind of joy Mary Magdalene felt when she ran down that hill from the grave site telling everyone she came across that Jesus was alive. Although our joy is not as electrifying as the resurrection, our MMK 2018 team members were humbled by God's grace and miracles during our recent summer trip to Kenya. I have been dying to share the story of John Gitau. He is an 11-year-old boy that we encountered during our recent summer trip; a trip that completely changed his life, and restored his sight. This is an incredible story of fierce faith, miracles and the unwavering grace of God.
It wasn’t all joy. Matter of fact, it was a roller coaster of extreme emotions. We experienced heartbreak, desperation and then hope but ultimately grace and joy prevailed. We met John during our very first clinic day at a remote village called Turuturu…so remote, that I had not previously heard of it before this trip. My high school friend Veronica Maina had invited us to the village. Veronica had identified poverty and severe health care deficit in the area. Unfortunately, it rained that morning and as it turns out, there are no real tarmac roads leading to Turuturu so even though we used the best possible route to the area, our bus got stuck in the brown muddy road. After hours of pushing and shoving, our bus finally died but the community efforts organized by Veronica and Honorable Miss Sabina Chege ensured we arrived into our clinic…albeit 4 hours late. Random government and civilian vehicles just showed up and ferried all over us to the clinic.
And this is where Dr Bhanu Pandiri, our MMK 2018 team leader, met John Gitau and his mother. John was completely blind on the left eye and almost blind on the right eye where he could only make out shapes. John’s mom brought his medical records to share with Dr Pandiri hoping for a solution to his blindness. According to the medical records and his mom’s accounts, John had been blind since he was 4 years old. He has severe Keratoconus, a condition that has left him completely blind on the left eye and has limited partial vision in the right eye. He had been taken to Kikuyu hospital, 2 years prior; the best eye hospital in the country; where his mother was informed that he needed a cornel transplant to reverse his blindness. But the sad part was the surgery was going to cost John’s family $5000. This is a family that survives by working manual labor jobs on neighbors’ farms. Where were they going to get $5000? They could hardly afford a meal every night to feed their 3 small children. It bothered Dr Pandiri all day. She knew it was just a matter of time before the right eye corneal also perforated and John would be completely blind. She came over to find me at my pharmacy station directing me to ensure I personally filled John’s prescription and gave the family a few prednisone eye drops…some steroid eye drops that will at least delay the inevitable blindness on the right eye.
Later that night, after our normal hurdle (debriefing), she came to me and shared John’s desperate situation. “I took his picture, we can crowd fund and raise money for the surgery when we go back to the US”, Dr Pandiri shared excitedly determined to help John. That night as I laid down to sleep, I kept thinking about John’s story over and over again. I couldn’t sleep thinking of the poor boy and his family’s abject poverty. Then it dawned on me…Why wait to go back to the US to crowd-fund while we can do it now? After all, MMK had a very successful fundraiser and can afford to pay for the surgery. As soon as I woke up, I told Dr Pandiri that MMK could actually sponsor the surgery now. She was over-joyed. I could tell the whole John’s situation was weighing heavily on her and the sense of relief was unmistakable. We shared the news with the rest of the team and everyone was supportive of the decision. But there was another problem…we couldn’t find the poor boy.
It Takes a Village…and Social Media
It took another week…literally, to trace the boy. There was no physical address in the village and the phone number that the mom had provided Dr Pandiri was a non-working number. Most Kenyans use prepaid phones and only load the phone with prepaid minutes when they want to make a call so if they are not calling anyone or expecting a call, the phone is turned off to save battery. Every single day during our bus ride home or in the morning, I would try the number but I could tell it was turned off. At the end, I wrote a text message, in ENGLISH… which I later learnt was useless since the mom does not know how to read in English. But Dr Pandiri had the insight to take his photo in my camera. We went through hundreds of pictures and were finally able to trace his picture which we blasted on social media and asked everyone to share. Surely, someone from the village must know this family. We had a few false alarms here and there but we finally found John and I was able to speak to the family and share the good news. MMK will help John recover his sight. It is the best phone call I have ever made, a call of hope of a future without blindness, John and his mother were ecstatic.
Hiding in Plain Sight
It wasn’t until we came back to the US and Sonaali was reviewing her photos of our arrival to the clinic that she discovered John was there the whole time. He was among the many kids waiting for our arrival at the clinic.
Dr Pandiri, Sonaali and I met John and his father at the Lyons eye hospital in Nairobi. One look at the family and you knew their home circumstances were lacking. John had worn torn muddy shoes and dirty tattered clothes and his father…well, you can see the picture below, no description needed. None of these mattered since we were all full of hope at his future. Our concern at the moment was hoping we can get the corneal transplant surgery scheduled, only to have our hopes crushed brutally and in the cruelest way. The hospital did a series of eye exams and John couldn’t see a thing on the left eye. On the right eye, the examiner had to literally stand in front of him for John to make out a shape. Then we waited patiently for our turn to see the corneal transplant specialist. Unfortunately, John was rejected at our first consultation at Lyons Eye Hospital since it was deemed too late to save his vision since his corneal was too thin for "stitching" and the procedure way too risky. We were told that only a stem cell transplant would save his sight but the stem cell technology is not available in Kenya as of now.
The corneal transplant specialist; the only one at the hospital at the time, didn’t even give us eye contact when he repeatedly said; “no intervention….it is too late. He will learn to live like that. I will give him glasses” Our hearts were broken. How do you learn to live blind? And we already knew that glasses wouldn’t help. Dr Pandiri pleaded desperately; “why not try the left eye transplant anyway? There is nothing to loose, he is already blind”. The surgeon completely dismissed us calling for the next patient. Dr Pandiri finally said; “wait, sorry I am asking a lot of questions but I am a physician and want to know why you think the corneal transplant will fail”. He again repeated, “It won’t work, too late. No intervention”. This doctor was such a disappointment and very nonchalant about John’s condition and his needs. He crushed our hopes to the ground and stamped on them with his foot leaving us gasping for air crushed by despair. When we went outside, Dr Pandiri looked at me and said; “What was that”? Well, to be truthful, in Kenyan standards where most doctors don’t care for bedside manners, it wasn’t that shocking to me at all.
Outside, his nurse caught up with us and tried to explain that the corneal was too thin to suture in the transplanted corneal so it would not attach…or something close to that effect. Sonaali and I started crying hugging each other feeling the sickening pit in our stomachs. Good thing the boy and his father do not understand English, but now I was sitting there wondering who is going to tell John that there was no hope and he couldn’t have the surgery we had promised. English or not, they must know from our tears that the consultation did not go as expected.
A doctor's determination...against all odds
Dr Pandiri was undeterred. I have never seen such determination and resolution in a doctor who was willing to do whatever it takes to help John and his family. While Sonaali and I cried, Dr Pandiri was texting all the Ophthalmologists and corneal transplants specialists she knew back in LA seeking their help. There was a hiccup though, no one was responding. It was 3am in LA so everyone was asleep. She kept telling me “we are taking him to the US. He is going to see again”. I didn’t know what to say; I know how difficult it is to obtain a visa for medical procedures to the US. The US is the least preferred destination for medical tourism and the reasons are quite shocking. The US embassy will not provide a visa for a patient unless the patient can show proof of funds and the cost of the procedure. But this is where it gets tricky, very few US hospitals will provide a comprehensive quote of a procedure. Years ago, my own niece died while I was working on getting a quote from hospitals for her heart surgery. I already had a cardiovascular surgeon who had written a letter to the Kansas University (KU) hospital waiving his fees for the procedure. But the hospital could not give me an estimate of the procedure and unfortunately, time was not on our side.
Most Kenyans travel to India or UK hospitals as you can get a direct estimate of almost any medical procedure. Dr Pandiri then started searching for corneal transplant specialists in Nairobi. We called one office but the specialist was unavailable until the following week. And that is when Veronica, the same childhood friend who invited us to Turuturu village, happened to call. After explaining our desperate situation, Veronica told us of an eye clinic that she had just come from, and Dr Pandiri looked it up as we spoke and sure enough, the clinic had a corneal transplant surgeon. We called the clinic asking for an appointment and was offered the first available the following week. This is where being assertive actually pays. I politely informed the receptionist that we needed an urgent appointment right away since some of us are leaving the country and won’t be available the following week. We asked her to approach the doctor and request accommodation for a consultation today. She hesitated. I urged her on, and she said she will call me back. 10 minutes later, we got the call. Dr Kimani will see us. As we hurried to leave, the nurse came back running and said the doctor of disappointment wants to speak to us. We made our way back to his clinic. I am not sure whether it is because he realized he wasn't that helpful in front of a fellow physician but this time he was a completely different person, smiling, making eye contact and even a little friendly. He explained that the corneal transplant wouldn’t work for John but he is working on bringing stem cell transplant technology to Kenya. Check back in two years. Adios!!
Dr Pandiri (left), Sonaali in the middle, with John
The doctor of hope
And then we met Dr Kimani who we dubbed the doctor of hope. After running their series of eye exams, she told us that John needed a corneal transplant and she could do it but it was expensive. Dr Pandiri and I didn’t even hesitate. We both looked at each other and said at the same time; “lets do it”. Let’s take a look at Dr Kimani. She was completely opposite of the first doctor. She explained everything to us in details and then explained everything again to the father in the local language explaining the process of the corneal transplant and the required follow up and the anti-rejection eye drops administration. She was extremely compassionate, took her time to reassure us that John will be well and had great bedside manners. And even without us indulging more information, she offered, “he must be a foreigner and does not know how to deal with Keratoconus. I have done these transplants before successfully”. She was damn right. He was a foreigner. She explained to us that currently they do not have a way to harvest corneal transplants in Africa and she has to order the corneal from the US. We asked if they could order and schedule the surgery while I was still in Kenya and she agreed. Finally, a flicker of hope.
Dr Pandiri (left), Dr Kimani, John and Sonaali (right)
John came to Nairobi with his mom the night before the surgery and stayed with us overnight. We noticed when he was with the mom, he was more open, smiling and even engaging in play while he was with the father, he didn’t even flinch and sat down facing the floor until he was spoken to. We learnt that the family was broken and the father had been physically abusing John and his mother. Matter of fact, the reason we couldn’t find her was because she was chased away from her matrimonial home after a beating the day she brought her son to our clinic. The husband was upset that she had brought John to our free clinic since she was just wasting time and “he will never be able to see again”. John showed us the scars on his back from the beatings for trivial reasons like stepping on his sugarcane plantation. Duh…..the boy is blind and cannot see where he is walking. Who does that?
A mother's tears
The tears of a mother who has cried to the Lord for years. A mother who never gave up hope for his blind son, believing God meant more for him. Believing his son had a destiny. A mother who took any opportunity to try and help him. Who never ceased praying for a miracle to happen and his son’s sight restored. She risked everything she had; her marriage and ultimately her life. She came to our clinic even though she knew she will be beaten. She said she always knew John would be able to see someday. Her story made me shudder and I was shaken by her unfaltering faith. Her prayers were answered. And MMK was just a bridge that God used to answer her prayers. What were the chances that we would go to this remote village and Dr Pandiri would come across John? What were the chances that Veronica called at the exact time when we were desperate and giving up and just happened to come from a clinic where Dr Kimani practiced? You can’t make these things up, no matter what you believe. These chains of events as they happened were driven by forces beyond us.
The corneal was successfully transplanted and we drove back home that evening. Our ride home will stay with me forever. Sonaali, John and his mother at the back of the car riding in silent, no one saying a word. The silence was almost piercing. John is still not awake from his sedation and I can see the worry in his mother’s face as she tried numerous times to wake him up. I tried to reassure her that he will eventually wake up and not to worry but she was not convinced. A few hours later, John was fully awake from his sedation and we all went to see him. He was not in pain at all which was surprising. The following day we took the same ride back to the clinic and it was a clear contrast from the night before. The bandage was still on but John almost felt better, like he already knew he could see. He was smiling and singing in the car playing with Sonaali. And the mother watching them with a happy smile; a clear contrast from the day before.
It was all smiles and laughter as we headed for our first post-operative appointment. I don't know how but instinctively, John knew he could see even before the bandage was taken off. And amazingly, he had no pain from the surgery.
At the clinic, Sonaali and I watched as the doctor took the bandage off. At first, he couldn't see anything. Our hearts froze. And then came the urgent announcement; "I can see" and John could instantly see his mother. What a miracle! To see him actually see his mother again after so many years of blindness, it was an overwhelming
experience. Sonaali and I had clearly become crying buddies and we were crying again and hugging each other, but this time, it was tears of joy.
John Gitau had complete sight on his left eye. We had given him a change of clothes and he wore Sonaali’s shoes and had to wear sunglasses to protect his new transplanted corneal from the sun glare. Sonaali called him Mr. Cool…and so he was. He was playful playing hide and seek, finally able to play all the games he had never had a chance to play before. What a happy day! And what a privilege to be able to experience it?
And the joy didn’t end there for the family. There was more good news. With the hostile and toxic home environment, Dr Pandiri made the decision to unofficially adopt John and be responsible for his education in a private boarding school. He had become part of her life and John loved Sonaali, Dr Pandiri’s daughter, like a big sister he never had. I checked on John's everyday and each day his sight improved as the graft continued to heal. One morning during my post surgery follow up phone call, John’s mom picked up the phone with some scary news. She was hysterical, recounting how she cannot find John anywhere. He had disappeared.
My heart froze as I thought of all the possibilities. I knew the family had moved away from the abusive father and my first thought was maybe the dad kidnapped John for revenge and he is in danger. I instructed John’s mom to look everywhere and elicit help from the neighbors. I sat crutching my phone waiting for a call back. After what seemed like an eternity, my phone rang. Turned out John was found on the roadside a few miles away hiking to Nairobi. He had run away from home and was trying to get a ride to the city to come to us. Who can blame him? He had had a difficult life since he was born and for the very first time, he had tasted a life he never knew existed.
After his recovery, Dr Pandiri ensured John was enrolled in a boarding school near where his mother now lives. Every day, I would call the mother to follow up on his healing progress and reassure John that we will visit him when we are back in the country. I still speak to the mom regularly and she tells me how John is able to see her from a distance and wave as she walks to the school compound. A miracle indeed. She had never seen that before the surgery. His sight continues to improve as the healing process continues. John wants to become a doctor so he can help others. I do believe God has big plans for this young man and I can’t wait to see what he becomes.
I am thankful to everyone who supported us and donated to our trip. Without your financial support and your prayers, John's miracle wouldn't have happened. I am especially thankful to Dr Cara Gardenswartz and David Melnick for hosting and sponsoring our MMK 2018 fundraiser at their house. And to all 15 MMK 2018 team members who traveled to Kenya with me, you are my heroes.
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Founded in May 2011, Medical Missions Kenya (MMK), is a registered nonprofit organization with 501c(3) status and is recognized as a public charity by the IRS. MMK mobilizes medical volunteers to lend their services during two-week medical missions to Kenya. MMK was founded to help the people of Kenya by combating hunger, improving health, and promoting health education, one village at a time.