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This war she danced!

Updated: 3 days ago

Last week my husband joked, “I hope you are not planning on ditching medicine as a career to become a writer. I paid your fees you know; hoping for a return on investment.”

I laughed. Was he kidding? What with all the blood, sweat and tears — that was not an option.

You see, med school — is a jungle. A war zone. The kill or be killed type. It is an equaliser and no respecter of persons. I still remember the introductory speech by the Principal on our first day. There were hundreds of us. Hundreds of eager beavers, ready to wear their superman tights to solve the world’s problems.

‘You have come here today as ordinary men and women of society. But we will mould you and shape your thinking so that you learn how to think, speak and act like doctors.’ The Principal’s voice echoed in the large hall.

We nodded our heads with the persuasion of a monk. Some of us even took notes of that speech- underlining the key words in red. What we didn’t know, was that we were as prepared for med school as a first time mother is prepared for labor. No amount of baby showers, lamaze classes, you tube videos, or ‘mom to be’ books can prepare you for the experience of labor pain. It’s the ‘you have to see it, to know it’ kind of experience. That was med school.

We walked in oblivious; like starry eyed newly weds saying I do. We didn’t know that when he said mould, he actually meant — panel beat. After five to six years of med school, some barely recognised themselves. We walked into a high stakes episode of Survivor Kenya where every so often someone fell off the wagon and like mist — disappeared.

Med school was a humbling experience. It was the one place a top scoring A student in high school — got negative CAT marks. So serious were they about the curriculum, that you got negative marks for every wrong answer you gave. It wasn’t enough to be right, you couldn’t be wrong. I remember this unit called clinical chemistry. Don’t be fooled, it wasn’t about the periodic table or the mole concept. No. It was so amorphous that in our first cat the highest mark was eleven….. percent. The rest had negative percentages. Our marks were usually displayed on a notice board for all and sundry. We learned early how to maintain a poker face as we stared at those notice boards smiling on the outside but wailing on the inside. Who gets negative marks??

It didn’t take long before most of us ditched the superman tights and put on the Clarke Kent suit. The fifty percent pass mark that most of us snickered about on day one, became the goal most longed to beat. Of course we had outliers. The kind that scored distinctions when everyone else was struggling to pass. We didn’t like them. Indeed med school — was not for the faint hearted.

The first year was the hardest. Not in terms of the content, but because of the sheer volume of new things there was to learn. There was no room to focus on anything else but books. If you joined first year already in a relationship you most likely got dumped. If you had a talent, it was buried. The only extracurricular activities one could do was eat and sleep. I can’t count the number of times we sneaked out human bones from the anatomy lab to our living quarters to study. Weekends were spent in the anatomy lab with cadavers. We became so familiar with them, we named them.

‘I need to look at Monica’s brain. I didn’t quite internalise the cranial nerves.’

‘Ok I will be at the other end with Jared’s leg revising the femoral triangle.’

‘Guys did someone take Sharon’s stomach?’

‘I can’t find Kamau’s tongue.’

And so on and so forth. It was truly a journey — one you couldn’t tread solo. One had to have some form of a support system. It didn’t matter whether you were the sharpest or the coolest kid on the block. No one could go it alone. It is here that I met her — *Ariella.

She was easily everyone’s friend; a not in — your — face christian girl who knew how to put people at ease. She was such a breath of fresh air in this maddening environment. A beautiful, diligent, compassionate soul with a calm spirit and one of the funniest people I knew. She had a rare kind of humour. She would be explaining a concept, and would suddenly break into her local dialect. She would leave us in stitches, peeing on ourselves due to her unprogrammed Meru jokes. Ariella was the only person we knew who dared to have an activity out of med school in the first year. And she didn’t hide it. She was an active member of a legendary Christian dance group and would make it for practice and performances without fail. During the week, it wasn’t unusual to see her bobbing her head to some tune or sporting a dance move. Yet she was one of those, the ones who didn’t struggle with the fifty percent pass mark. She was sharp. Maybe because she memorized body parts in kimeru.

It was this extracurricular activity and commitment to church — that took her to Mombasa one time for a 3 - day youth camp. While there, she developed some unusually debilitating headaches. So bad were they, that she barely attended the camp and had to remain behind for evaluation and treatment while the rest came home. Once stable enough to travel back, she was admitted at the University hospital for further management. Her room never lacked for visitors as scores of us were anxious to see her. If only to understand the nature of this prowler that had sneaked into her brain and was now eating into it day by day. Each time one of us saw her, we would receive a new report. What started off as a headache, deteriorated into confusion and then, hallucinations. When in the beginning, we would sit by her bedside and laugh with her, now she barely remembered our names. This was bizarre. We didn’t understand it — this illness. It was like an alien that possessed her. Doctors worked tirelessly trying to come up with a diagnosis. Tests upon tests were conducted but the pieces of the puzzle did not fall into place. Her condition deteriorated day by day and soon enough she went into a coma and landed in ICU.

Visiting her became more and more agonizing. For anyone who has the unfortunate experience of ever visiting an Intensive Care Unit, know it is like a crime scene. You cannot walk in and out leisurely. It is restricted. People would walk in dry eyed and would leave, tear filled and head bowed. We would gather in groups speaking in hushed tones. The love people had for her was evident by the number of young people who spent countless hours in the ICU praying and hoping for a recovery. After a while, her body began to swell. The alien was not satisfied with ravaging her brain, it was now distorting her body — leaving us staring at someone we barely knew. It was slow torture — a form of procreation without romance.

One starry night, without warning, she was called home. No goodbyes, no note, no see you later. She just left as calmly as she had lived. Hearts were broken, lives were changed. Questions went unanswered. There is nothing that gives you an epiphany as the death of a young, vibrant friend. It stirs something in you. That there has to be more to life than this jungle of books — we had chosen. This war that we were thrust in that left no room for anything else. Med school robbed many people of many things. Not her. I am sure she fought; and even if she did not win — This war, she danced.

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