One Saturday Morning in August 1998 at Ngemwa PCEA church in Githunguri, John Mburu and Esther Wanjiru looked each other in the eyes and saw the radiant glow of vigour and energy and vowed, “…in sickness and in health.” They spoke these words with heartfelt promise of devotion and best intentions. None thought at the time their marriage would become saddled with sickness. But we are mortal and fragile, and even young people become ill. After six years of a blissful marriage and two children to boot, sickness came knocking at their front door. Today, twelve years later, the trials are not yet over, but the fact that their marriage was built on rock not sand has made it possible to weather the storms. From their home in Buru Buru, Nairobi, the couple share their marriage experience with MWAURA MUIGANA.

I still recall his powerful and polished voice during a church service at PCEA Ng’enda Parish in Gatundu. The well-built, dark young man roared like an anointed lion as he said the pace-setting first prayer. With every sentence, the congregation shouted Amen! The prayer was incisive, deep and spiritually uplifting. As he concluded, the congregation literally shouted Amen, Amen, Amen! There was thunderous applause of appreciation as this equally energetic and athletic looking young man walked back to his seat in deliberate heavy steps.

The next time I met him many years later John Mburu was a shadow of his former self. The heavy physique was long gone, the strong warm handshake suppressed and the enviable lion’s roar a whisper from far within. As he put it, a lot of water had passed down the bridge… He and his wife took it from there in their own words:

A marriage shaken…

John’s take: “Our marriage was working perfectly. I had a good job as a Corporate Officer for the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA), and my wife had left her secretarial job to go into self-employment. All was well until 1998 when I noticed my right leg calf was swollen and very painful. My doctor brought down the swelling. However, in 2000 the problem recurred this time on the left leg. The doctor recommended further medical tests at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi. I was admitted for three days and a diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which means a blood clot in the veins, was arrived at. The clot was dissolved through medication and I was okay.

I was on official duties in Meru in 2001 when I developed breathing problems and started feeling very tired. I tried to remain strong but the symptoms persisted, escalating to severe chest pains at which point I consulted a pharmacist in the town who diagnosed pneumonia and prescribed drugs. But there was no let up and by the time I arrived back in Nairobi, after an agonising drive from Meru, I was a very sick man.

My wife rushed me to the Aga Khan Hospital, where I was immediately admitted in the intensive care unit (ICU) and put on oxygen and other life-saving equipment. Tests revealed clots in veins in both legs and collapsing lungs. A blood sample was sent to laboratories in Germany for further analysis to help establish the cause of the blood clots.

This illness shook me to the core. I felt insecure and guilty that I might not be able to continue fulfilling my young wife, nor provide for her and the children if I remained unwell. I prayed that she would not be resentful because of the burden I was placing on the family. I was discharged from hospital and continued attending clinic regularly. There was some improvement and at some point we assumed the problem was over, until it recurred in 2004. I was back in the ICU for three weeks before being discharged.

After this stint, my condition seemed to deteriorate and medical expenses were running very high. I had already stopped working for KTDA and had started a transport business, which eventually collapsed as my medical bills ate not only into the family finances, but also the business. I couldn’t even afford to continue with regular clinics but continued taking the blood-thinning medication to take care of the perennial clots. My condition and the limitations it was imposing on my marriage not only made me frustrated, but also very angry. It took my wife to convince me that God was watching over us and she would remain by my side.

Towards the end of 2004, I collapsed in the house and was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) where I was admitted for two months. Innumerable, but inconclusive tests were done, while my health continued to deteriorate. Prayers by our children, Joan Wacheke and Oliver Nganga, kept my faith high. I remember they would often ask me to kneel and then lay their hands on my head as they prayed for me.

Desperation strikes…

As the illness progressed, I felt as if I was losing control of my life. Initially, I suppressed and even denied the feelings only to realise this was pushing me into depression. It took me accepting the situation and having faith that God was in control to lift the veil of depression that was engulfing me. I became positive once again and this transferred to my wife and children. I realised wallowing in self-pity would be disastrous for my family. In spite of my pain, I needed to be realistic in order to help my family cope with the added stress my illness brought to everyone.

Seeking a second opinion…

It was my lawyer cousin, Mary Njeri, who convinced us to seek a second opinion. She recommended I seek treatment in India. Through her assistance, we contacted Dr. Mrasali Ajit, the chief surgeon at Mandras Mission Hospital in India. He asked me to send my medical records to him. When I approached a doctor at KNH to provide me with the records, he seemed to discourage me from taking the step of going to India, saying what I needed was an oxygen machine because I needed oxygen supplementation for ‘remaining’ period of my life. I understood that to mean I didn’t have long to live. He told me another option was a lung transplant and there were few hospitals in the world that performed the operation. While his statements frightened me, I insisted on seeking another opinion and his last words to me were, if I had money to waste I was free to go ahead.

I eventually gathered all the medical reports and sent them to the doctor in India. I was given an appointment, but there was a problem – I had no money. My cousin once again came to my aid and organised a fundraiser, which I was opposed to at first because I did not want to be a burden to other people. But my brother Samuel and my wife convinced me I was not a burden and the fundraiser went ahead. During my healthy days, I was involved with a lot of community work and participated in many fundraisers for people in need, and in my hour of need, they reciprocated. The response to the funds drive held in 2007 was overwhelming.

My wife and my brother Samuel escorted me to India. Tests showed that my heart was enlarged on one side and the right ventricle had a blood clot measuring two centimetres. The pulmonary artery had started blocking and the lungs were dotted with blood clots. Basically my heart was collapsing, as the doctors put it. Initially they found it difficult to make a decision on the best course of action before finally settling on an open-heart surgery. In an eight-hour operation, the clots were removed and arteries cleaned. I remained unconscious for three days and spent a total of two weeks in the ICU before being transferred to the general wards. I was discharged from hospital after a month’s stay.

I returned home feeling much better and my health remarkably improved until the end of 2009 when my body started swelling. I sought treatment at KNH and was told I had water accumulation in the chest. One doctor said I needed admission while another said my case was not serious enough to warrant admission. When the problem persisted and I started feeling weak, my family decided I go back to India for a check-up. My wife accompanied me to India in September 2010. Doctors found my heart and lungs were getting weaker and the liver had contracted. They also said the kidneys were not functioning properly. I was put on medication and recommended a special diet and advised to be going to the hospital for a check-up once a year. I am regaining my health and I thank God who has remained faithful to me.

Thank God for my wife and children…

My wife and children have remained by my side; loving me unconditionally and I reciprocate tenfold. Both our children are in boarding schools and they have remained prayer warriors, committing me to God and asking Him to restore my health. It is touching to know you have a family that cares and I know their prayers have sustained me. Before I got sick, I used to take them out on picnics and other places of entertainment, but today I am not financially or physically able to do that. I thank God I have an understanding family who try to do with whatever we have without ever complaining.”

In health and in sickness

Esther’s take: “A marriage is like the weather – there are good days and bad days. It would be absolutely selfish to desert your spouse or not be supportive of them when they are suffering. You have to experience the rain if you want see the rainbow. We had an excellent life before John got sick and when I realised his condition was not getting better, I encouraged him and reassured him we were in it together. At first I worried and panicked a lot, but as a born-again Christian prayers sustained me. Because of numerous hospitalisations, I spent lonely nights alone, with prayer as my only companion. I sought solace from family and members of the PCEA Kariobangi Church where we worship. We prayed relentlessly especially with my district one members.

More children on the way…

I made sure our children knew exactly what was going on by sharing even minute details of their father’s illness, and seeking their prayers. I got pregnant with our third child when John was already sick. After a difficult pregnancy, Emmanuel Ngengi was born on December 24, 2004. With a newborn and two other children to take care of, a sick husband in hospital and family upkeep and medical bills to worry about, it was not an easy time. I woke up early every morning to complete all my tasks including preparing food for John, as I never let him eat hospital food, spend time with him in hospital and change his clothes and ensure the newborn’s needs were met.

I was six-moths pregnant with our last born, Leah Njeri, when we took John to hospital in India. It was a tough time and I feared I might not be able to carry the pregnancy to term because of stress and worries. I worried about my husband’s survival as the doctor had told me he had a fifty-fifty chance, but I remained positive throughout, trusting in God’s miracles.

Leaning on faith…

I read a lot about heart diseases and experiences from survivors and heart specialists. The book, Gifted Hands, by a US neurosurgeon gave me strength and faith. When other doctors refused to handle pathetic cases of children, the author would proceed with the operation and all of them turned successful. The book gave me faith that with prayer there would be gifted hands out there for my husband.

The burden of children…

My husband’s illness disrupted his full involvement as provider of our children. I had to shoulder most of the responsibilities. We had to restructure our home to ensure things continued running smoothly even as we battled with my husband’s illness and diminishing finances. We learnt to downsize and live within our means. I must say we have managed extremely well because none of our children has ever lacked food, clothing or school fees. I have not shied away from asking help when things get real tight. Members of my church, officials of the Constituency Development Fund, a neighbour counsellor, Rachel Kamweru, and Janet Kariuki of Jaka communications, among others, have been of great assistance, especially in helping to pay school fees for our children.

Remaining faithful to marriage…

My husband’s illness has been a learning experience for me and I hope other couples can learn from it because no one is immune to tragedy. The vow –  ‘in sickness and in health’ – has brought new meaning to my marriage. It reminds me to hang in there even when things get real tough because I made this promise to my husband and God. It also reminds me that it is by God’s grace that we have good health and by the same grace we are able to bear the burden of ill-health. My husband and I have not only grown more in love, but also deeply in humility and service to God.

Not everyone understands how I have managed to handle the situation all these years. Some ask me whether it has not been too exhausting, but I remind them with God on your side nothing is impossible. Illness certainly disrupts the course of marriage and it has been important for us to continuously reaffirm our commitment to each other. Some life challenges can bring a couple closer or tear them apart. We chose the route of facing our challenges together, remaining honest with each other and not shying away from expressing our true feelings, whether positive or negative. Our love has matured as a result of our experience.

And to my husband I say, we should refuse to be owned by our hopeless conditions. No matter how confusing or painful life may be, it is precious and worth living. John, you will die at God’s timing and not anyone else’s appointed time. I want you to be encouraged by the Psalmist: ‘I will not die, I will live to proclaim the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.’  I want you to continue growing in faith. May God bless and keep you. We will forever look at you as the head of our family.”

Published in June 2012