It is now a generally accepted fact that a majority of Kenya’s middle class is just one hospital bill away from bankruptcy - it's an even worse story for the lower classes. The veracity of this statement never really hit home, until I saw it first hand.
A good friend of mine (let's call him Stevo...to protect his identity). So, Stevo is the evidence I have to prove that the ‘one disease away from poverty’ statement is true.
It all happened at the tail end of 2020 and well into 2021.
We had all found our own ways to cope with Covid-19. From starting side hustles, to moving into cheaper houses, to cutting down on sherehe...survival was the name of the game.
Unfortunately for Stevo, his position as a real estate maintenance manager for a leading developer was declared redundant in the final quarter of 2020.
Having worked for the firm for almost a decade, the news hit him hard. He had just started a family of his own, with his daughter barely a year old when it happened.
Never one to wallow in self pity, Stevo was soon out of his sad funk and back on the streets looking for ways to provide for his young family.
This was how he started his housing agency. His vast experience in the field coupled with his extensive list of contacts proved crucial during this period.
As with most startups in the country, keeping a keen eye on costs and identifying which ones can be avoided was done religiously.
It was during these religious audits that Stevo decided to have health insurance on the to-do-after-one-year list.
In his previous vocation, all that was sorted by his employer. A comprehensive cover that was enough to cater for not only him, but his family as well.
In retrospect, I should have insisted on having health insurance being a non-negotiable. I actually did, but Stevo showed me his rainy day bank statement and I was convinced. In my head, that was enough money to cure 100 lepers.
He was always a diligent saver and his ‘rainy day’ account was fat, and I mean properly fat.
As long as he had money to cater for any unforeseen medical emergency as he worked on breaking even, we assumed all was well.
Everything was going well until his daughter’s one-year birthday. That was when all hell broke loose, turning our worlds upside down.
She had been fussy all morning. The crying was non-stop. At first, we thought she was one of those kids who didn’t like strangers in the house.
Stevo even joked about it at the time. Going on and on about how his daughter was already a defensive guru.
But the crying just grew louder and louder and then her skin started turning pale and blue-ish.
It’s funny how you can go from laughing and partying over a cold beer, to an ER in a matter of minutes.
Her lips were now almost completely blue by the time we were checking in. It was just chaotic to put it mildly. Her breathing felt laboured.
Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. There were screams, wails and a few curses here and there as we rushed to secure emergency treatment. We finally did.
One of the nurses tried to calm our nerves by telling us how such symptoms were common in one-year-olds, then went on to explain how just a little oxygen would do the trick, insisting that we need not worry.
It was an exercise in futility.
She then tried a distraction tactic to try and calm Stevo down.
“Why don’t we move to my desk and start filling out the insurance stuff,” she said.
Stevo was in a trance. I stepped in and told her that we’d be paying in cash. Her eyes widened, fault lines forming small etches on her forehead.
“Ok,” she said as she walked away.
All we could do was wait.
After what felt like an eternity, the doctor finally came out. His face was expressionless, it could be as a result of what he had to see on a daily basis, it made him really hard to read.
This was why my stomach was clenched in knots as he walked towards us.
“She’s sleeping now,” that was all I heard at first.
He then went on to explain what he termed as a normal condition in girls her age. He mentioned high nitrate levels in the water in our area as a possible cause/trigger for the abnormal skin colour.
However, he also mentioned that he still needed to run some more tests to eliminate some of the more serious illnesses that could be behind the pale blue skin.
I’ll never forget the word ‘echocardiogram’. This was a test specifically targeting the heart to see how well it was functioning.
The parents gave their consent and the doctor disappeared from whence he came.
Her heart was the problem or she had a congenital heart defect as the doctor put it. As much as he tried to explain how treatable it was, we just broke down.
“Is my baby going to die,” the pain in the mother’s voice was too hard to bear...I walked out.
This was one of the darkest days of my life. I had a seriously heated conversation with God outside the hospital.
It took a while for us to get to a point where we understood what the options were. It was either some procedure called catheterization in which the doctor would use a catheter to open up a narrow valve in her heart or open heart surgery.
The parents, after receiving sound advice, went for the first procedure, having been reassured that a little widening of the valve would work….It did.
The doctor would still need to have the baby around for observation over the next few days, just in case. There was no opposition on our end. The little girl was now okay, that was all that mattered.
Health is Wealth
I have come across this corny statement so many times, but never really took the time to internalise it.
Medical treatment in Kenya is very expensive. I don’t know about other countries. The hospital bill just kept ramping up and by the time the doctor cleared the now bubbly toddler as fit enough to head home (almost a month later), Stevo was down to his last coin...literally.
With no medical cover, the rainy day account didn’t even make it past week one. We had to engage friends and loved ones in a WhatsApp group that was created specifically to raise the money needed.
It was a lot.
If you don’t have health insurance, I beseech you to find a way to set this up. In this day and age I’m sure there’s a payment structure that suits everyone, including the unemployed. You just don’t know when you’ll need it.
Flash-forward to this day and Stevo’s little girl is just a bundle of joy. She turned two the other day and you can’t even tell how close it came to a tragic end. Her birthday stirred up old memories.
A year later, no rainy day account, no savings, no business, but a happy and healthy daughter. Fair play if you ask me. However, if you can avoid the financial strain that comes with medical costs, just do it.