In the past one year that Sharon Atieno and Kepher Kaimenyi have shared a room in a paediatric wing, they have grown quite fond of each other.
It is easy to see what the care-givers of the two one-year-olds mean because as soon as Kepher spots Sharon, a huge smile slowly spreads across his face.
The babies are so attached to each other. This is because apart from a small team of nurses and doctors at the Kenyatta National Hospital, they only have each other for company.
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Kepher has Down Syndrome and is confined to a wheelchair. The nurses who wheel the silent boy around the hospital, draped in a green shawl to keep him warm, have learnt to decipher his facial expressions.
His head, enlarged by hydrocephalus, is always slanted to the side; his neck muscles not strong enough to keep a straight posture.
Sharon, on the other hand, was born with multiple congenital abnormalities. Her body is extremely bony and frail, visibly underdeveloped for a child her age. A feeding tube snakes its way inside her nose to her stomach.
One of her eyes detached during birth, and it is still unclear whether she will be able to use it to see again. When she is not lying on the bed, she has to be held. This makes her entirely dependent on the staff.
Hospital administrators said the children’s mothers abandoned them after birth, most likely because of the physical impairments.
But they are not the only patients at KNH with no family or a place to go.
On April 2, KNH, which had been criticised for detaining patients over unpaid medical bills, waived the debts of 258 patients, including Kepher and Sharon.
Many families came for their kin, but no one showed up to claim the two children or other patients who have been at the hospital for months, others years.
Dan – second name unknown – is a 10-year-old boy who is epileptic and cannot speak. His only family is the nurses who he reaches out to grab in mumbled joy anytime they pass by. The hospital has no leads on the whereabouts of his relatives.
Adults, too, are stuck at the hospital. But in their case, it is unclear whether they have been abandoned or whether their families do not know that they are in hospital.
The two patients who talked to The Standard were taken to the hospital in ambulances as emergency cases.
James Mwangi was admitted earlier this year after a lorry run over his leg while Caroline Nduta was taken to the hospital by a St John’s ambulance after she delivered by the roadside in South C, Nairobi, in June 2017.
Mwangi laughed as he narrated to The Standard that his sisters only found out recently that he was at KNH. “They thought I was dead and that I had been buried at Lang’ata cemetery.”
Asked why he had not gotten in touch with them earlier, he said he could not remember their phone numbers.
“I was told I can go home if I have fare,” he said.
He does not have any money or anything of value, but said his sisters would help him. And while he can walk once again, one of his fingers was amputated due to an infection.
Today, Nduta has extensive memory lapses. Her mind wanders during conversations and staff say she has no recollection of giving birth or having a child.
Because of her amnesia, Nduta was unable to care for her newborn who was put up in a children’s home.
For the last two years the hospital has been on an unrewarding search for her family. Nduta says she has sisters but each time they live in different places – sometimes in Kitale and other times Kinangop.
Social workers at KNH think her family is in Kingangop and have even circulated photos of Nduta, but nobody has come to claim her. The patient, they admit, may be unrecognisable from two years ago because her skin is now lighter and she has put on weight.
“Of course we have to care for her until she gets out,” said Roseline Lokoloi, a nurse at the post-delivery ward, which Nduta has called home for the last two years.
But even though the hospital willingly cares for the patients, the management admits it is in the best interest of patients and the hospital that they find somewhere else to stay as soon as possible.
KNH acting board chairman Stanley Kamau said it was challenging to find homes for patients aged between 18 and 60 because most institutions were either for children or the elderly.
For patients with disabilities or who were bed-ridden and needed extra care, Mr Kamau said it was even more difficult to place them in homes.
The cost of taking care of the patients, said the chairman, was high and put added pressure on the facility’s strained resources.
“The longer the patients remain in the hospital, the higher the risk of contracting new infections,” said Kamau.
He acknowledged that families might not know their kin had been hospitalised for an extended period and expressed hope that such patients would eventually be reunited with their relatives.
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KNHKenyatta National HospitalThe Standard
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