Media fraternity mourns award-winning journalist Elizabeth Merab

Media fraternity mourns award-winning journalist Elizabeth Merab

What you need to know:

  • Merab was the firstborn in a family of five children.
  • She trained as a teacher at Kenyatta University, specialising in English and Literature.
  • She graduated in 2014, but had already joined the Nation Media Group in 2013, and quickly established herself as a passionate journalist.

“I want to be remembered as the health journalist who also battled a health condition but did not let that condition weigh her down.”

As she uttered those words in an October 2021 interview, Nation Media Group award-winning journalist Elizabeth Merab was bubbly. Jovial. Radiant in a yellow dress.

The condition she was referring to is sickle cell anaemia, which was diagnosed when she was 10 years old, and which saw her walk in and out of hospitals from a young age.

However, on Tuesday, July 11, she made a trip to The Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi that would turn out to be her last.

On Saturday, July 15 morning, she breathed her last at the age of 31, after battling complications stemming from the hereditary disease that had caused an amputation of her left leg a few months ago.

It came as a shock to family and friends because, on Friday, she appeared to be in relatively good health and even joked with a cousin of hers who had visited her.

Merab’s uncle, Tom Obar, told the Nation that she promised the cousin to share more banter the next day.

“When my son visited her, she was a bit jovial, and they cracked some jokes there. She told my son that tomorrow, that’s Saturday, they would laugh more,” said Mr Obar.

“We had arranged to visit her at around 10am to see if she had improved and if they discharged her, then we would come with her immediately to the house,” he added.

That was not to be. At around 3am, hospital officials reached out to Merab’s relatives. Her father, who lives in Nyanza, was contacted and he sent his brother Mr Obar, who lives in Nairobi, to rush to the hospital.

“Immediately, her father called us. We rushed to the hospital. The doctors told us that her condition started getting worse at around 3am up to 4am; that’s around one hour. At 4.15am, she (died),” said Mr Obar.

“We just thank God because it’s His plan. There is nothing much we can do. But by the time she was dying, she was in a lot of pain. The other problem is that she was eating very little. She didn’t have energy. I think the body was overwhelmed by the medicine.”

They had taken her to hospital on Tuesday and she was in a lot of pain.

“She was admitted immediately (and) taken directly to the High-Dependency Unit,” Mr Obar said.

Asked why the death came so suddenly, Mr Obar reasoned that the disease was characterised by sudden and extreme strikes.

“It’s an on-and-off disease in the sense that sometimes the pain goes off. You see, those doctors were also trying to manage the pain. So, all of a sudden as from 3am, it started getting even worse,” he said, noting that doctors tried to resuscitate her in vain.

“When the pain starts, it can start on a very low level and in an hour, shoot up to the highest level,” Merab once said in an interview.

“It’s pain that makes you want to cry. It’s pain that makes you forget that you’re an adult and you just want to roll on the floor.”

Merab was the first-born in a family of five children. One of her sisters, Mr Obar said, died of sickle cell disease.

Merab trained as a teacher at Kenyatta University, specialising in English and Literature. She graduated in 2014.  She had already joined the Nation Media Group in 2013 and quickly established herself as a passionate journalist.

“My interest in health journalism emanates from two points,” she said in the 2021 interview, where she spoke about how she wanted to be remembered.

“One is just curiosity… The second is passion. And when I talk about passion, I talk about personal passion. I am very driven when it comes to health news or anything that is related to medicine, because of my own personal experiences and personal interactions with doctors and going to hospital a lot.”

Elizabeth Merab

Merab joined the Nation Media Group in 2016 and quickly established herself as a passionate journalist.

Photo credit: Pool

Nation Media Group Editorial Director Joe Ageyo celebrated Merab’s determination to deliver despite her situation.

“Merab had a fighting spirit that made her a model journalist. In between the episodes of sickness, she still managed to put together award-winning and agenda-setting journalistic pieces. She was among an increasingly rare breed of journalists who believe in the life-changing power of good journalism,” he said.

“In Merab, therefore, the country, the Nation family and the journalism fraternity have lost a consummate professional whose contribution to societal wellbeing will endure for generations to come. May God comfort the family at this trying time,” he added.

Describing Merab as a gallant warrior, Mr Ageyo said that NMG was together with her family and friends in mourning her death.

The Nation Group Managing Editor Pamella Sittoni mourned Merab as an exemplary scribe.

“Merab was a brilliant and hardworking journalist who will be remembered for her award-winning articles on health and science. She will be greatly missed bythe Nation family and the journalism fraternity where her affable personality earned her many friends. May God rest her soul in peace,” she said.

Merab’s last published article in the Nation was, incidentally, about sickle cell. It was published in the Healthy Nation magazine of March 28, 2023, and it started thus: “Communities living with Sickle Cell Disease this month received devastating news after pharmaceutical giants discontinued research toward developing a ‘cure’ for the blood disorder.”

But as she wrote that article and at least 895 others, she was battling pain. Hospital visits. Financial crises. Intimidating needles where doctors struggled to find where to insert them. Blood transfusions. And pain medication.

“I would go to hospital, get transfused, have pain management done, and I’d come back and go back to work,” she once said, noting that all this also took a toll on her mental health at times.

In 2019, medics established that she had no spleen. By 2020, she had developed a condition called vascular necrosis, which meant that her hip bones were starved of oxygen.

In April this year, her leg had to be amputated because it risked causing fatal clots. Despite all this, she always looked forward to writing her next story.

“My work as a health journalist is one of the things that I found to be a very strong challenge for me. It’s just something that drives me a lot. I always want to wake up and tell a health story that will have a positive impact on the health system or on the patient’s life,” she said in the interview with media personality Emmanuel Yegon.

Her battle with sickle cell disease had started from when she was a young girl. Often, she would be given malaria medication, but at the age of 10, after doctors extracted a sample from her spinal cord to enable them to conduct tests, it was established that she had sickle cell disease.

She had to retake the test at 18 because doctors told her she hardly looked like someone with the disease.

“You do not have yellow eyes. You do not have a pale skin. You seem to live a good, healthy life. So, we don’t really think that you could be having sickle cell,” she recalled one doctor saying. The second test cleared all the doubts. She had this hereditary disease that limits the capacity of blood to carry oxygen and in effect ruins organs.

“Life in hospital officially began at 10, and hospitals just became my second home: in and out. Probably on a monthly basis, I remember I did my national exams, both national exams actually, in hospital,” she said.

She described sickle cell disease as an ailment that causes pain in the body out of various triggers.

“If you’re anxious, it is likely to trigger those painful crises. If you’re stressed, the same thing. If you’re happy, the same thing. So, you literally have to experience emotions in moderation. Otherwise, any high high or any low low will trigger a painful crisis,” she said.

“Something else ... the weather. If it’s too hot and all of a sudden it becomes too cold, you’ll experience it. You will feel it in your body through pain,” she added.

By sharing her story in videos like those and on social media, she hoped to give hope to those in a situation like hers. This, she said, came with its negative consequences of hurtful questions from some people.

“The questions cut so deep. Sometimes I haven’t stopped to think about them. I often don’t have answers. The reason I haven’t stopped to think about them is because I have this personality where I don’t want sickle cell to define me,” she said.

“She has fought the disease for the last 31 years and if you are not stable a bit and are not positive in life, you can die even before the age of 20. But she was very positive, she knew that she had that disease. So, that’s why she was going around, doing counseling and teaching people about it so that people could be aware: if you have that disease, you should not be worried,” Mr Obar said.

The disease occasioned a huge financial burden, and the uncle said the family is yet to clear the bill for Merab’s amputation at St Peter’s Hospital in Kinoo.

The journalist was always appreciative of the fact that Nation Media Group had understood and supported her fight with the disease.

“The triggers have been so frequent and so intense to the point that I’ve missed a lot of work. One thing that I’m very grateful for is that my employer has been able to lend a supportive hand in terms of just understanding that there are days that Merab may not be there. But whether she is there or not, we will support her towards her wellbeing,” she said.

According to Mr Obar, Merab looked set to return to work in about two weeks because her post-amputation progress was relatively good.

“She was almost recovering. In fact, in the next two weeks, she was supposed to resume her duty. But this kind of sickness of sickle cell, when you advance in age, the condition gets worse,” he said.

As Merab departs to craft catchy intro paragraphs and break down complex data for others in the next world, her newspaper articles and social media posts will forever remain the relics in the monuments that will immortalise her.

Read more here: Elizabeth Merab