Rosemary Achieng is not easily cowed in spite of a strange accident that left her partly paralysed and with severe leg injuries that cry for specialised treatment. Confined to her small room in Kayole Estate and rejected by family and friends, Rosemary still stands tall despite her physical challenges. She shared her experience with MWAURA MUIGANA.

Rosemary Achieng was waiting for me outside her one-roomed rented house at Nairobi’s Kayole Estate near the district headquarters for this interview. Tall, dark and dressed in a long purple dress, her face had a sad look in contrast to the smooth voice I recalled from our telephone conversation. Rosemary supported herself against the wall as she greeted and escorted me to her room.

Her mobility was laboured and as soon as we got into her room, she literally collapsed on a seat strategically placed behind the door and showed me to a sofa firmly set against the wall. Her bed occupies the better part of the room, while a small music player lies on the table churning out soothing gospel music. Under the table and the only remaining space in this tiny room are jerry cans filled with water and stacked on top of each other for want of space. The room is so dark that the lights have to remain on most of the time for proper visibility.

In this close vicinity I get a clear view of Rosemary’s legs. There is a disconnect between her upper and lower body trunk at the knee joint. Her kneecaps face the sides and seem loosely connected to her legs by the skin. Her twisted right leg appears lifeless such that her foot barely steps on the ground, and her left leg appears worse off. Her toes permanently face upwards forcing her to step on her heels. I tell myself that she should be in calipers to support the loosely held bones and flesh. The picture is clear – whatever happened to her, she is not only in pain but nursing serious physical injuries.

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How it all began…

Rosemary, a qualified hairdresser, whose world is now confined to the small room notices my concern and quickly informs me that she was not born that way. She goes on to tell me how she came to be this way – a story dating back to December 2, 2005, when she worked as a hairdresser in a salon at Westlands in Nairobi.

“I was off duty and enjoying my day when I moved to the open balcony of my apartment at Kayole Estate to pour out some dirty water. It was around 3p.m. I was bent double on the balcony rail fully engrossed on the noise the water running down was making when I felt very strong hands grab my feet at the knees from behind. I was tossed over the balcony and landed on the ground, legs first. The sound of cracking bones still resonates in my mind to this day. I passed out on landing.

Strangely, this happened so fast that I never saw the attacker. Neighbours, who rushed me to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), told me later that they came to my aid after hearing my screams and found me lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Before rushing me to hospital, they looked for the attacker within the enclosed residential plot but didn’t see anyone. No one has ever been arrested for the felony.

When I came to, I was on a hospital stretcher and my legs felt lifeless and were unresponsive to touch. The doctor said I had suffered severe leg and spinal injuries. He suspected the right side of my body was paralysed. Both legs had broken bones and the right leg sustained a deep crack running right down to the foot. Also, both legs were dislocated at the knee joint and were loosely held to the upper trunk by the skin.

I was treated and discharged from hospital five days later and remained bedridden for a long time with severe pain. Subsequent clinic visits didn’t improve my condition and reconstructive surgery was difficult at the time due to the extensive damage to my legs.

Soldering on through tough times …

Not being able to walk traumatised me and talk by people around me that I will never walk again because of the spinal injuries didn’t help to allay my fears. But I knew deep down within me that giving up was not an option. I was going to fight this monster that had been handed down to me. I painstakingly massaged and exercised my legs every day with conviction that I would walk again some day. Despite the pain, any small improvement I made was a big milestone.

In September 2007, a stranger referred me to a project at Kijabe Mission Hospital, which offered free treatment to anyone below 18 years suffering from spinal and bone injuries. Although I was over 18 and therefore didn’t qualify, I still decided to try my luck. I hoped my age would not come into play because I was so emaciated that I looked like a fifteen-year old. My brother and a pastor friend helped me with bus fare to Kijabe.

 I couldn’t benefit from the project because of my age but was referred to the hospital’s orthopedic department. After examination, the verdict was unnerving and heart rending- my left leg needed to be amputated. My right leg had bone cracks that needed delicate reconstructive surgery. It was going to cost around Ksh100, 000, which I didn’t have and had no hope of ever getting. I had to deal with the agonising eventuality of losing my leg and raising the money to get treatment.

Things get desperate…

The doctor was my only hope since most of my friends and relatives had given up on me and deserted me. Expecting my parents, who had abandoned me since childhood, to visit me in hospital was delusional.  As a young girl in standard three, my mother sent me to live with my aunt in Kisumu, as soon as I dropped out of school due to poverty. My aunt cared for me until I was 15 after which I moved away to work as a house help in Kisumu town.

I relocated to Nairobi in 1990 where I lived with a relative and a friend later assisted me to get hairdressing training. I then got a job as a hairdresser at a salon in Westlands where I worked until the near-fatal balcony fall. I had re-established contact with my parents and used to help them financially but they once again abandoned me after the misfortune struck.

After hearing my financial predicament, the doctor at Kijabe referred me to Tumaini Hospital in Kibera, Nairobi, which supported slum residents through free medical treatment. In all this, my biggest prayer to God was not only to make my treatment possible, but also spare me from the loss of one of my legs.

At Tumaini, I was asked to raise Ksh 4,000 before they could consider my case. My brother managed to raise half the amount and the hospital administration was kind enough to book me for treatment but told me I needed to raise the balance before the operation. I was sent back to Kijabe for an X-ray and the earlier diagnosis was reconfirmed.

The operation was scheduled to January 18, 2008 and since the grace period for paying the balance of Ksh 2000 had lapsed and I couldn’t be operated on without putting down a deposit of Ksh 60,000. Although my spirits were dampened, I didn’t give up hope. I continued praying to God to bring down a miracle.

While my brother was of the opinion that we postpone the surgery to give him time to look for the money, I opted to talk to the doctor to operate on me as we looked for money. And God’s miracles were truly coming my way. The doctor had by this time formed an opinion that amputation was not the best course and instead favoured to fit me with metal plates and calipers in both legs, an operation that was to be done in two phases. I was glad I didn’t have to lose my leg.

The doctors first fitted metal plates and calipers in my left leg. I remained motionless for one month while the setting took place. The calipers were removed after one month and another set fitted on my right leg. My brother and his wife cared for me throughout that period. The doctors postponed the removal of these calipers twice because I was too weak to undergo another procedure, but they were eventually removed.

Down but not out…

The doctors were honest with me that the procedures they were carrying out were only temporary and my injuries could only be properly repaired through speicalised treatment out of the country. There was of course no hope for this, as I couldn’t even raise bus fare for clinic visits to Kijabe, leave alone pay the hospital bills. After all these struggles, I gave up on treatment and discontinued even the medication I was taking. I lived by the grace of God.

I struggled with mobility, would fall down and struggle to rise up and when this was not possible crawled to my destination. But prayer never left my lips. And God is good because I have made remarkable progress albeit with crooked and deformed legs.  I have learnt to walk again, though awkwardly, but there are times I can’t get out of bed because of pain. Members of my church and my brother have stood by me and their encouragement has helped me to make great progress.

My life today revolves around my small room. Occasionally, I braid hair for some little income for my survival, albeit with much struggle. Hopefully, one day I will access specialised medical treatment and my life will resume some normalcy. I believe God will bless me and I will live my dream of one day being a salon owner. Hairdressing is my passion and it is a pity that this accident cut my dream short.”