Dorcas Mallei, 39, is a mother of three – two biological children and one adopted. Before being diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks itself, Dorcas led a reasonably normal life. Her career was thriving having climbed up the corporate ladder within the media industry before venturing to start her own public relations consultancy.
Unbeknown to her, she was suffering from lupus, whose onset can be traced back to her childhood. As a child, she suffered from a myriad of diseases. She would go to different hospitals with no clear diagnosis on what exactly was ailing her. Each visit saw the disease manifest different symptoms hence the treatment she received never really dealt with the underlying problem.
“I had always been sick but unfortunately we did not have a clear diagnosis of what was ailing me. Lupus mimics the symptoms of other diseases hence can be quite challenging to diagnose,” says Dorcas.
When she was five years old, she went bald and her parents were petrified. They were persuaded that their beautiful little girl had been bewitched. They immediately took her to her grandmother for cleansing.
“I remember one day I woke up and my hair had shed off completely. I was confused and immediately taken to live with my grandmother who brewed up some traditional concoctions and applied on me to ward off the evil eye,” chuckles Dorcas.
The symptoms would gradually die out although she would fall sick occasionally – nothing that couldn’t be sorted with a visit to the hospital and a few medications. However, she would be reminded of her ill health in 2013 when she donated blood for sister who was in dire need. Dorcas was then working in her PR firm.
Lupus patients are not advised to donate blood and since Dorcas wasn’t aware she was suffering from the condition, she moved swiftly to help save her sister’s life. This act of kindness turned out to be a nightmare as it triggered a series of symptoms akin to Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) within two months. Her feet got swollen and reports from the doctors revealed that she indeed had DVT.
“Immediately after I had finished donating blood, I started vomiting violently. I, however, brushed this off and continued going to work as if nothing had happened. Two months down the line, I started showing symptoms DVT especially the swelling of feet,” says Dorcas.
The symptoms disappeared as swiftly as they had come and within a short while, Dorcas was back doing what she loved best, her job and fitness routines. Being a fitness enthusiast, Dorcas would go to the gym on a daily basis. It was her secret hideout. It was the place she felt at ease and fulfilled. At the gym, she would sweat out all her cares and she loved the adrenaline she got after a workout session.
One day on her way to the gym, she started feeling unwell and told her friend Joyce Mwangi about it. Joyce encouraged her to stay strong and try to make it to the gym not knowing that her friend’s life was in grave danger.
By the time they got to town from Hurlingham where her firm’s office was situated, Dorcas was sure that she would not make it to the gym. Joyce immediately boarded her onto the next bus home. Upon reaching home, Dorcas found her husband, Robert ‘Bob’ Wambua, and asked him to get her DVT medication. Robert quickly went to a nearby chemist only to come back and find his wife sprawled on the sofa, paralysed on her right side and unable to talk. He rushed her to the hospital where she stayed for a couple of days.
“After numerous tests and referrals to different hospitals, the doctors were not able to find at what was wrong with me. According to the doctors, I was healthy, which worried us,” she sighs.
It was in March 2014 that they discovered what was really ailing Dorcas. She had been scheduled to undergo electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment that involves sending electric currents through the brain to relieve mental health problems, after she suffering several bouts of extreme depression and psychosis. It was while they were fundraising that her friend Joyce bumped into a mutual friend who inquired on Dorcas’ wellbeing.
“He was distraught when he heard the news and recommended that we go see his friend, one Professor Kioy. We reached out to the professor who unfortunately was out of the country. We patiently waited for his return, which proved worthwhile because he was able to immediately recognise the disease. He referred us to Dr Philip Simani, a rheumatologist, who confirmed I was suffering from lupus and was started on treatment,” she recalls.
Dorcas reveals that the disease cost her relationships as friends and family rejected them. People viewed them as a burden as the disease required financial muscle to manage. Dorcas had to stop working and the savings she had accumulated had long been exhausted by the costly tests and medications. Her husband’s salary was also not enough for them. She is, however, not bitter at those who turned their backs on them but just thankful to God for revealing who her real friends were and also for bringing new people in her life.
“Nobody wanted to be associated with us because all they saw was pain and burden. I thank God for my husband, children, mother and all those who stood by us in our time of need,” Dorcas says appreciatively.
The experience also drew her closer to God. “Lupus takes everything from you. I came to know that God really exists when He provided for us in our darkest times. People whom we thought would not help actually surprised us with us with food, rent and even contributed to the medical bills,” shares Dorcas.
She recalls another event that affirmed God’s benevolence and existence. During one of her medical checkups, they came to learn that her heart rate had gone up to 228 beats per minute (bpm) as compared to the normal 60 to 100 bpm.
“My doctor, who is a Sikh, was dumbfounded. He changed the testing machine three times just to confirm the results. When the results came back the same, he asked me bluntly if I believed in God and advised I start if I did not,” exclaims Dorcas.
Through the ups and downs of life, through the pain and the tears, through the rejection and depression, Dorcas maintains that it is her son, Kyle, who helped her to fight.
“My son is just God sent. Whenever Kyle would sense that I am about to let go, he would stop whatever he was doing and come straight up to me, hold my hand and start singing Jesus loves me this I know. Then all of a sudden I would just feel at peace and find strength to live another day,” she says.
She admits that her husband and family have also played a big role in her road to recovery.
“Bob is the strongest in our family. He is my anchor. He has become a wall and protector of our family. I don’t know what I would have done without him. My children – Louisah, 14; Stephanie 12; and Kyle, 10; have had to undergo counselling so as to be able to deal with the condition,” she says.
Finding solace in baking
Dorcas landed into baking by accident. Despite being a great cook, it had really never crossed her mind that she could bake to earn a living. It was difficult for her to go back to her former job as a journalist and PR consultant as the disease had affected her left side of the brain making it difficult for her to write and sometimes even speak.
The idea of baking was birthed during her son’s birthday. The couple did not have money to buy him a cake but could not let their son down. That is when Dorcas decided to bake the cake. She, however, had to convince her husband to allow her to bake as her entire right side was paralysed (she suffers from occasional paralysis, which mostly affects the right side of her body). Bob inquired from her doctor and was given the green light. He agreed and maintained a hawk eye on Dorcas.
“Kyle was excited about his birthday and had invited all his friends. We didn’t have it in us to spoil his day. The sparkle on his eyes when he saw the cake was heart melting,” she says, adding, “I started Sweet Purpose Cakes not only to earn a living, but also use some of the proceeds to help other lupus patients.”
As she came to learn, life with lupus is manageable especially with the right support and medication. This, she clarifies, is not to mean that overcoming the challenges is a walk in the park. Dorcas has joined a lupus support group on WhatsApp, which provides a platform for lupus patients to help each other.
“Through the WhatsApp group, we encourage and check up on each other. We even go as far as sharing our medications with those who do not have their weekly dosage,” Dorcas admits, a sly smile lighting up her face.
Through it all, her faith remains strong. She is hopeful that one day she will get back onto her two feet but until then, she will bake it until she makes it.
Symptoms of lupus include constant fatigue, achy joints, rashes, hair loss, blood clots, sensitivity to light, chest pains when breathing, mouth sores and swelling. Lupus patients experience flare-ups, which can be mild or severe and are also vulnerable from infections.