Sunday, March 1, 2009




By Rosemary Okello

The name Lorna Irungu rekindles memories of the 1990s TV game show Omo Pick a Box, the Vijana Tugutuke voting campaign and an upbeat, energetic and feisty young woman who is always ready to use her talents to champion a cause.

Lorna Irungu

But Lorna’s life is not all fun and games. The 35-year-old has had more than her fair share of pain and suffering. She has battled lupus and kidney failure for more than 10 years, and her most recent ordeal has left her asking what God really wants of her.

Having already undergone two kidney transplant operations, Lorna never imagined she would need a third.

"What started as a minor infection, towards the end of 2007, became tuberculosis of the spine and I had to be admitted at Nairobi Hospital," Lorna told the Sunday Magazine.

Cast her vote

This was a great disappointment for someone who had worked so hard on the Vijana Tugutuke campaign, urging the youth to turn up and vote in the 2007 General Election. But when voting day, December 27, rolled around and she was still hospitalised, Lorna negotiated her way out of the hospital for a few hours in order to cast her vote.

But this was to be the last time she would walk for many months. Her vertebrae collapsed and she had to be rushed to the ICU where she stayed, in a coma, for three weeks and only regained consciousness on January 27, last year.

"During this time I was put on some strong medicine and I needed to drink one and a half litres of water to flush the medicine out of my system," Lorna says.

However, because her kidney was already compromised, she started reacting to the medicine and this affected her lungs, liver and kidney.
Lorna, weak, but in high spirits on Christmas Day last year.

"When my kidney started to act up, my blood pressure went out of control. It also affected my heart and this is when I realised that kidneys are central to everything in the body."

At this point it was evident that a third kidney transplant was necessary, but Kenyan doctors were unable to perform it.

"When my sister and boyfriend heard this, they started looking for help on the Internet. They found a promising option in South Africa, but it was very expensive."

They then looked to India, which they had heard was promoting medical tourism. They sent a request through the Internet and, within 48 hours, got a response from Fortis Hospital, New Delhi. Dr Vijay Kher, the hospital’s director of nephrology, talked to Lorna by phone and made travel arrangements for her.

Renown for specialised treatment of kidney diseases, Fortis Hospital has performed over 1,500 kidney transplants, but in only two cases was the patient having a third transplant. Lorna was in bad shape — collapsed vertebrae, a weak heart, uncontrolled blood pressure and other complications. She needed to be stabilised before she could travel. After two weeks, Lorna made it to India.

She went in for the first surgery to remove one of her four kidneys to create room for the third transplant.

The second surgery, the transplant operation, lasted five hours and was a great success.

"I spent the shortest time in hospital, even with the complications that can arise during a third transplant."

Surgery made headlines

The cost of the surgery and the weeklong hospital stay came to about $8,000 (Sh480,000) — a fraction of the prices she was quoted elsewhere.

The success of the operation made the headlines throughout India. CNN also run a lead story, Kidney odyssey takes a Kenyan to India.

Lorna with her brother Jomo I4 days after surgery. Jomo donated the third kidney. Her sister, Tata, who donated the second was with her throughout her stay in India. Photo/Courtesy and file/standard

But what Lorna remembers most about her three-month stay in India is the relationship between the doctor and the patient. She says money was not an issue to the doctors, who were more focused on their work of healing. She had almost 20 doctors at her disposal.

"Any time they came to check on me, they came as a team, and in case there were any reports about me they needed to know, the nurses, who are also specialised in taking care of kidney patients, would send it to them at once."

Looking back, Lorna says her ordeal with kidney problems has shown her how blessed she is to have a loving, giving family.

"My family came through and encouraged me to take a step of faith even though third transplants are very rare. They were there for me because in such cases, even if you can afford the treatment, getting a willing donor might be a problem."

Lorna, who got her first kidney donation from her father and the second from her sister Tata, was concerned that she was becoming a burden to her family.

"When my brother offered to donate his kidney I was touched, but I felt guilty. However, he told me it was his decision to give and my duty to receive. I am really blessed to have such a family around me."

Questioned God

Lorna says she would not have gone through the ordeal if it were not for her family, friends and close colleagues who kept urging her not to give up.

"But mentally, I had lost hope of getting better and the mere thought of going through another surgery was too much to bear.

"I was tired of always being in the hospital, asking for money for treatment and always on medicine. I asked God why I was the one who was always struggling to stay alive."

But, she says, she snapped out of it and realised she had to accept her situation, change her attitude and deal with it. The rest, as they say, is history.

And Lorna says she has never felt so good after surgery and feels God has given her another chance in life.

"What God did for me was like he was telling me, it is not for you to get fame since all the media houses in India wrote my story, but I think God used me to show that what he did for me others can also benefit from and that with hope and a strong faith nothing is impossible for God.

Kidney patients

Lorna says she had supportive family and friends who went out of their way for her, even setting up a Facebook account called ‘Friends of Lorna’ to raise funds for the surgery.

"However, the majority of Kenyans who find themselves in a similar situation die because they cannot afford or cannot access hospital care," she laments.

This situation has prompted her to join hands with Jean Banda, a founder member of the Kenya Kidney Foundation, who has also suffered from lupus, to make a difference in the lives of many thousands of Kenyans who do not have anywhere to turn when diagnosed with kidney problems.

"Some of the issues we are pushing for are affordable medicine for people suffering from kidney diseases and affordable dialysis," she says, recalling that these issues are not problems in India.

She says that when one is suffering from kidney failure and has undergone a kidney transplant, medication alone costs Sh30,000.

"How many Kenyans can afford that?" she asks.

Lorna hopes to leave a legacy as a woman who fought for better, more affordable treatment for kidney patients, thus enabling them to live longer, happier lives.

"I want us to live lives free from exploitation from drug companies and health care systems, which make it hard for ordinary people to get help."

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