When she was young, Gertrude Katula used to lie next to the fireplace oblivious of the danger she was exposing herself to. However, when she was three years old, the reality of it dawned on her and in the cruelest ways. One evening in 1997, as was her norm, she made herself comfortable next to the fireplace. Unlike other nights, her dress caught fire. Shocked by the fiery fires and fearing to be punished, Gertrude rushed and hid in a suitcase of clothes, which didn’t help matters. By the time the flames died out, the damage had already been done.
It was her aunt who discovered her in their small hut in Ikalaasa village, Machakos County. Her aunt, shaken to the core, rushed her to a nearby health center dispensary where she received first aid before being transferred to Machakos General Hospital where she was admitted for a year. She was then transferred to Nazareth Hospital where she recuperated fully. While the wounds healed, they left her badly scarred, a constant reminder of what happened that fateful night.
“I went through three surgeries, which included grafting on my stomach, which was greatly disfigured. My belly button was moved to one side and my thighs and one of my breasts also bore the brunt of the burn,” she says.
Adolescence often brings about self-awareness and body changes, but for Gertrude, she had the added burden of getting teased because of her disfigurement. The taunting was endless, she says, as children said all sorts of unkind things. “See that girl who has one breast on her chest and the other on her stomach?”; “Is there anyone who can love and marry such a person?” – went the jibes.
Needless to say, her self-esteem took a beating and by the time she was joining high school, she didn’t want anyone to see her body. She would thus wake up at 2 A.M to shower so as not to be seen by her fellow students. She would also avoid dressing in the presence of other students.
While the burn affected her body, her brain was in tip top condition and she excelled in her academics. So much so that she proceeded to Kenyatta University where she is currently taking a Bachelor of Science degree in hospitality and tourism. She is left with one semester before completing her studies.
While in university, Gertrude’s side hustle was repairing shoes to supplement her upkeep. And it was while she was diligently carrying out her duties that she met the love of her life and a man who would change her life for the better – John Nzioka, a Ph.D. student at the same institution.
“For unknown reasons, his shoe took longer to repair than usual and that meant we would talk more often. We got to know each other more in the process. I opened up to him about the scars on my body but this did not seem to put him off,” she shares.
Nzioka adds, “The burn scars did not scare me off. She has good qualities that far outweigh the scars and any man with a brain would marry her. When I shared my feelings with her, she thought I wasn’t serious.”
This went a long way in helping Gertrude overcome her esteem issues as well as accept herself and by the time she was 21, she was more confident of her body. The duo started courting and in April 2017, they moved in together.
“I was convinced he loved me. We also talked about the possibility of me being unable to carry a pregnancy to term and he assured me that we would get a surrogate mother,” reveals Gertrude.
To add icing to the cake, Nzioka’s family also accepted Gertrude and her gynecologist confirmed that despite the disfigurement, she could bear children.
The doctor’s assertion was soon confirmed as Gertrude fell pregnant. “Our next concern was that she wouldn’t be able to carry the pregnancy to term,” says Nzioka.
Gertrude reveals that they got different opinions from different doctors with some suggesting that she aborts the baby as it was too risky. They consulted a plastic surgeon, who, after examining her, believed she could pull through with the pregnancy.
As the pregnancy grew, the bump developed on one side as the grafted skin could not stretch further. “The one-sided bump made it difficult to stand or do ordinary daily activities such as cooking. Towards the third trimester, the skin around my tummy got tight and I had to keep it moisturized using Bio-Oil to keep the skin supple. Some tummy areas started cracking as the baby grew,” she says.
Her delivery took seven hours with some doctors suggesting that she undergoes a Caesarian Section but the decision was overruled as a CS scar would have added to her problems. The nurses were also kind to her and this eased the labor process.
And so it was that baby Stanislaus was born on Feb 15, 2019, at 2:05 pm. With delivery behind them, breastfeeding with one nipple as she couldn’t breastfeed with the disfigured nipple proved challenging. What’s more, the disfigured breast was still producing milk and being unable to breastfeed with it, milk accumulated in the breast causing her colossal pain. Her mother-in-law was a saving grace as she would do a warm massage/compress on the breast three times a day until it stopped producing milk.
In a bid to reach out to victims of disfigurement, in September 2016, Gertrude started a cause called Beyond Burns and Disfigurement which supports and encourages patients suffering from disfigurements.
“Sharing my story with burn and accident victims encourages them not to give up but to soldier on. Eventually, I would like to witness people donate their skin to be used for skin grafting for victims with severe disfigurements,” says Gertrude optimistically.