It all started the night my 12-year-old daughter, who was nine at that time, fell sick and was booked for admission. I couldn’t stay with her as I had a two-week-old daughter to look after. As we darted from one hospital room to another, I kept asking myself one question, “Who do I call to come and stay with her?”
I made frantic calls to relatives and friends, trying to find help. Some were too far to come over while others had other obligations to attend to. Thankfully, I got someone to stay with her but the events surrounding that difficult period remained forever etched in my memory.
I am a trained primary school teacher, but I left the profession after two weeks because I didn’t find fulfilment in it. I secured a job at the administrative unit of a local hospital.
It was here that I encountered experiences that mirrored my anguish the night my daughter fell ill. I saw patients and their guardians pacing about along the corridors, deeply worried for the future. In 2021, I got an internship at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), Kenya’s largest referral hospital. Here, the level of vulnerability among patients was magnified.
One day, I arrived at KNH at 7am. A patient had been dropped by her son who had to rush to work, so I took over.
I had known the patient since 2022 when I was an intern at the emergency unit at KNH. We had met as the patient was trying to get imaging services. Back then, when I interned at KNH and later Mbagathi Hospital, I would help patients get different services, but I didn’t think of it as a career.
Sometimes, especially when there was an accident, good Samaritans would rush victims to hospital, then leave. What happens if the victim’s family is far? What of that woman who has a sick child on her lap and another on her back?
In that question lies one of Kenya’s most pressing societal and demographic problems. Kenya’s elderly population has grown, and so have their medical needs, yet children are fewer and live farther from their parents, mostly due to work obligations. Further, technology, even with its many benefits, has weakened our social ties.
These experiences inspired me to pursue a certificate course as an Emergency Medical Technician so that I could take better care of patients. I started Dial-A-Care Emergency venture in 2022.
At first, I was afraid to market my hospital errand services largely due to the belief that individuals should personally attend to their sick parents, relatives and to an extent, close friends. Some Kenyans feel a strong desire to be physically present and provide care, which causes them to be reluctant to seek external help or hire professional caregivers. And when they seek these services, it is mostly ambulances and home care services.
Surprisingly, the day I kicked out fear, I realised that there were many in need of hospital companions.
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My work involves documentation, drug refills, imaging, and transport services. Generally, I ensure the welfare of the patients – including feeding them. The cost depends on the number of hours I work, and the nature of the errand. Visits easily become day-long affairs of waiting in lines and shuffling back and forth from one room to another and sometimes, across the streets. Each system is a lengthy process. I charge a minimum fee of Sh1,500 and I get three or four clients every week.
Patient companionship is a rather new industry in Kenya, and is largely unregulated, but I have set some ground rules for myself. First, I don’t reveal my clients’ ailments and identities. Second, I don’t ask inappropriate questions as some of them are going through an emotional rollercoaster.
We talk about life in general, and not the illness. I like it most when the patients strike conversations. I read a lot of journals on how to interact with them and most recommend that caregivers distract patients from the ailments. This is of great importance since most of my clients are cancer patients. After a few sessions, I see a therapist.
My work has made me more compassionate. When you have walked with such people, you realise that the next minute is always a mystery and it is important to live life to its fullest. That is what most patients tell me. Fuelled by this, I occasionally offer pro bono services to those who cannot afford to pay.
The best thing about my work? I get to experience humanity through it. I am currently taking a course on phlebotomy because I want to upscale my services. I am also a basic life support license holder trained in first aid. When in transit, I always carry a blood pressure monitor, stethoscope, pulse oximeter, thermometer, water and glucose for the well-being of my patients.