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Be Mindful of Life’s Turning Points: A Strange Thing Happened on My Way to a Career in Neurosurgery

photo of Dr Diana Wangari Gitau

Here is the typical academic and career trajectory of the classic Kenyan “golden girl”: attendance at a top-tier primary school; entry into one of the leading “national high schools”; and then entry into the incredibly competitive medical school. Beyond medical school would be the Eldorado of either neurosurgery, or cardiology – the ultimate twin peaks of aspiration for any young Kenyan who had been judged as “exceptionally promising” from their youngest days.

Having joined medical school, I was looking forward to changing the lives of my patients – and then something strange happened – even though, oddly enough, at that time I had no idea that I had suddenly arrived at a fundamental turning point in my life.

On a perfectly ordinary morning at med-school, and when least expected, I met a patient whose story was to haunt my imagination for months and years, and who indeed still haunts me to this very day: Joyce. I met her in my fourth year of medical school when she came in for her first consultation at the teaching-referral hospital. And even without closing my eyes, I can still see her now.

Joyce was dressed in a long, faded skirt that had obviously seen more than its fair share of days with a rather bulky, colourful, sweater, with imitation leather buttons, which seemed unnecessary for a rather warm morning. As she walked into the room, she appeared anxious and extremely ill at ease. Even as she sat down, you could see the reservation in her eyes, and I wondered if the slight stench that I detected had anything to do with it. And as she slowly started telling her story, she crossed her arms across her chest as if trying to conceal what appeared to be a case of macromastia (abnormally enlarged breast tissue). But the more she spoke of her symptoms the more I was convinced that it was something more sinister. This was confirmed when we examined her.

Lying on the examination couch, she slowly unbuttoned her sweater and we soon discovered that she had several articles of clothing and with each soaked layer the stench grew stronger until she finally revealed what appeared to be a large ulcerating mass growing from her left breast. It was oozing and there were evident skin changes even on the other breast. It wasn’t macromastia. It was late-stage breast cancer.

I asked her: “Did no one ever mention to you that if you felt a lump on your breast you should go for investigations?” No. “Did you know that there are physical signs you can look for to warn you that a lump is probably malignant?” No.

I was to learn that she was completely unaware, and it was only when the intensity of the pain increased that she sought medical intervention and even then, she had spent several weeks applying several different herbal remedies from local healers, before seeking care in the nearest health centre. They had then referred her to the nearby town and before she got to us, had moved between four facilities. The mass had metastasized and even formed an ulcer that had become infected. But even as I did my best to explain to her in gentle words the possible diagnoses, she just kept repeating in a dull monotone, “But if I die who will look after the children?” Apparently – and to add to the many tragedies in this poor woman’s life - she already lost her daughter to HIV/AIDS and raising her three grandchildren by herself, having long been deserted by her husband.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t give her a definite answer until we carried out investigations. We gave her an appointment for the next week. She seemed to consider her fate as there was a long pause before she finally looked up, said ‘Thank you’ and slowly stood up to leave. There were tears brimming in her eyes and right before she opened the door, she took a deep breath, and then walked out. My eyes were not that dry either.

I never saw Joyce again. She simply never did come back to us at the referral hospital.

As I received the Rare Rising Stars 2020 award, ranking among the most outstanding Black students in the UK, the question came up, “What drives me?”

In this past year, as the world battled with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us found ourselves reviewing, restructuring, and recalibrating our lives, professional and private.

I found myself thinking of the different turning points in my life. Joyce was one such point as she catalysed the shift the from being a medical doctor to being a healthcare entrepreneur. Joyce, and the challenges she and others face when accessing healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa, drove me to the realisation that I belong in impact, tackling some of the world’s wicked problems.

This saw me become co-founder and CEO of Checkups Medical Centre, a network of rapid outpatient diagnostics and treatment clinics that is set to unlock a 1-billion-dollar market, targeting blue collar workers in the fast-growing segments of the economy.

Therefore, when the team at Rare Recruitment reached out one year following the award and asked, “Would you like to share with us?” I took quite some time in responding as I reflected on my journey so far. I had exited my company, Checkups Medical Centre, and another strange thing had happened, only this time, it was as I was completing my MBA as a Skoll Entrepreneurship Scholar at Oxford University’s Said Business School.

The themes that were resounding in my career had been entrepreneurship, innovation, women, and health. I was yet on another mission.

I now work with several healthcare companies including Eden Healthcare, MedBoda and DonkeyWorks. Furthermore, based on my own struggles as an entrepreneur, I seek to support gender equality initiatives and this has seen me join a team raising a gender lens fund, Lens Africa Ventures, focused on East Africa.

So, what would I like to share?

The past year has not been easy for many of us. But the journey we must each walk is rarely paved. Therefore, we must find within ourselves, the strength to rise when we fall, to speak even when numb and to listen despite the noise. In your individual journeys, I hope that when you come to the fork on the road, you have the courage to take the right turn – even if it’s down the road less travelled.

Dr Diana Wangari Gitau

Dr Diana Wangari Gitau is a Skoll Entrepreneurship Scholar and MBA graduate from the University of Oxford. She is currently Principal at Lens Africa Ventures and Group CEO at Eden Healthcare Group. Her work focuses on issues pertaining to women, female entrepreneurs and health. She was No. 1 Rare Rising Star in 2020.