Last year, my colleagues Eunice Kilonzo, Jacqueline Kubania and I set on out on a journey to audit public healthcare in Kenya especially after devolution. The stories, like a doctor so busy she couldn’t have a minute for a meal and the neglect of mentally ill, broke our hearts. However, in the midst of the dread and gloom, we met medics whose style of management was as much a story as the facilities they were heading. In Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Training and Referral Hospital in Kisumu (famously known as Russia), I met Juliana Otieno, a pediatrician and the medical superintendent of the facility. On a motorbike to see her, I thought about the studies that states that hospitals are better when run by medical doctors. That, to me, was a conflicting piece of information because I had just left other hospitals not so far away from Russia run by medical doctors and the deplorable conditions that they were in were appalling.
Under her care, Russia has improved tremendously especially on matters of hygiene. During my two-day rounds at the facility, I learnt that Dr Juliana—yeah that’s how we call her in the newsroom— had not been spared of the hiccups that came with devolution. Be that as it may, the pediatrician had learnt about the value of “beneficial friendships and contacts”: some of the successful projects in Russian are funded by people she had met in her postgraduate studies or along her career.
Russia’s state of the art Ksh28million (about 274,000 USD) Intensive Care Unit was partly funded by the government and technology company General Electric. The Renal Unit was funded by the Taiwanese and the Kenyan government. The renal unit also has water treatment system from the Kenya Commercial Bank. My favourites were the new maternity, new born unit and Obama Children’s clinic. As a deputy medical superintendent in this very hospital in 2004, Juliana had met the Norwegian queen who visited the facility on matters related to HIV. Juliana, and her colleagues, had sought the royalty’ assistance to construct the maternity and the newborn unit whose value is estimated to be Sh75million. Being a pediatrician, it’s understandable that the Obama Children’s ward in Russia is semi-autonomous well run clinic where children get free treatment with the comfort for both mother and child guaranteed. The Obama clinic was partly built by Americans, the Walter Reed Project. Of the Walter Reed folks, she told me: “They had stayed here for so long researching about malaria and when they were just about to leave we asked them what they would leave in Kenya and they agreed to help with the Obama Children’s hospital”. Obama runs with great assistance from Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).
Before meeting her, I had been told that Dr Juliana does not “suffer fools” especially when the fool is a journalist. So I called her. I informed her that I would like to talk to her. I also told her that I was not coming for the interview tabula rasa as I had gathered information about the inadequacies of the hospitals that I wanted her to give me a few answers for. To my surprise, and in a matter-of-fact attitude she told me: “I did not expect you to find a palace, it is a hospital but whatever challenges that are there are being worked on, a lot has changed and I have absolutely nothing to hide. Come to my office tomorrow at 10.”
To the office I went. Juliana looked into my eyes and told me I had 45 minutes. She said as she asked the secretary to make me tea: “Here, time is of essence, it always and literally is a matter of life and death, Verah”. Her gaze was imploring yet very attentive, direct yet very inquisitive that I must admit it intimidated me. Her statements were straight and curt. Earlier during my information gathering period, I got a mixture of feelings about her from workers in Russia. Most felt she was too strict, never listening to opinions that differed from hers but peculiarly enough they did not want her replaced. “She gets the job done,” one had told me.
In our conversation, I got the feeling that she is a guarded woman but also very honest in a way that allows you to connect with her, at least for purposes of a genuine conversation. I understood that deep contrast by the bits and pieces of her life that she dropped in between the chat. A first born of eight, Juliana learnt about being responsible for a large number of people at an early age as she grew up in Muhoroni. “There was milking before school, fetching water and cooking and of course, being asked where you were as an elder sister when your junior siblings were making mistakes,” she said. When she passed her national primary examinations, her father could not raise the Sh4,000 (That is hundreds of thousands right now) needed for her to join Limuru Girls. The community gathered, fundraised and she went to school. “That is why I grew up with the resolution that, for matters such as education and health, I will give back to the community and to a genuine case,” she said. She went on to take her bachelors degree in medicine at the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 1979, graduating a year later because of the 1982 coup attempt. She took her postgraduate studies at UoN in pediatric medicine. Apart from working in the civil service, Juliana has taken part in research in Europe, America and various countries in Africa.
a mother of three biological children “and so many others that are just mine but I never gave birth to”, she says she raised her children the very same way she was raised and the way she relates to her colleagues. “I just have to let you know I am not the enemy but I do not expect laxity even in that love,” she said.
Her tips for being the professional of her cadre are straight forward. “Do not cheat me. If you feel that tea will take ten minutes to make, say so. Do not make me come asking for it fifteen minutes later.”
“I tell every healthcare worker to do the best they can with what is available regardless of the circumstances. I know there is pressure, and we are understaffed but do not tell me you yelled at a patient because you were under pressure.”
She said she did not understand the job-hopping of younger people who are always “claiming to be too busy they cannot even mentor one person”. She said: “Stay at a point and learn. Oh I know my job and my work place intimately. I interned here, have climbed up the ladders in this very hospital so whenever I am told there is mischief, I do not need an investigator because I know this hospital from corner to corner and I will leave my office, walk to this place and unearth those hidden drugs or whatever is missing”
Juliana says she enjoys Benga music, walking barefoot in her farm in Seme and farming.
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