Catherine Nyongesa had always wanted to be a doctor. In fact, the first day her father took her to join Misikhu Girls Secondary School, Bungoma, she insisted her dream was to be a doctor. But it was her sister’s illness that shaped her destiny.
More than two decades ago, her sister Cimmonne Nyongesa was diagnosed with uterine cancer. By that time, Dr Nyongesa was pursuing medicine at the University of Nairobi. Their father had sold a piece of their land to fund her education. It was during this time that Dr Nyongesa was taking care of her sister that she swore to pursue a specialisation in cancer in order to play a part in making a difference in as many cancer patients as possible.
After her graduation in 1995, she couldn’t proceed with her masters immediately owing to financial constraints. Dr Nyongesa, therefore, got her first job the following year. She worked at Kenyatta National Hospital Cancer Centre for five years as a junior medical officer even as she hoped to get a scholarship some day. Luckily, she got an International Atomic Energy Agency scholarship to study in South Africa for a Master’s degree in oncology. “She is the firstborn in our family. So, when she got her first job, all of us were banking on her salary. Her salary was not enough and she joined chamas to help raise money,” says Cimmonne who has been living with her sister since 1993. Even when Dr Nyongesa went to South Africa to further her education, Cimmonne tagged along.
She graduated with a master in Oncology from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa in 2006 and came back to Kenya. “Following her specialised training in South Africa, she returned to Kenya and was hired as a consultant radiation oncologist at Kenyatta National Hospital. Her heart was in great pain to see cancer patients waiting for up to two years to access treatment, especially radiotherapy,” Cimmonne says.
In 2010, the mother of three convinced her husband, Samson Watta, a practising pharmacist in Texas, United States, to help her set up a cancer centre. And the couple took a step of faith. Initially, the centre only offered chemotherapy treatment as an outpatient service. Later, the couple borrowed Sh100 million to build an inpatient facility in Hurlingham, Nairobi. With assistance from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre, the Nairobi centre acquired and installed a radiotherapy machine, set up a diagnostic laboratory and acquired x-ray machines and ultrasound equipment. As of March 2015, the Centre had over 70 full-time staff, handling over 150 outpatients daily, and offered accommodation at a reasonable fee to out-of-town outpatients. As of July 2017, the centre expanded to a total of four locations in Nairobi and Eldoret.
Cimmonne says Dr Nyongesa has always had a generous heart. “She has educated her nine siblings without complaining. She is like a father and mother to us,” she says.
Dr Nyongesa’s typical day starts at three in the morning with a prayer. She leaves the house at a 4:30 am for her daily rounds seeing her patients admitted in various hospitals in Nairobi including Karen Hospital, Mater, Nairobi South, Nairobi West, Meridian, Equator, Coptic, the Nairobi Hospital, KNH, then Texas Cancer Centre.
With such kind of work ethic, it is, therefore, no wonder that she has won several awards. In 2007, she was awarded The Employment Excellence Award of Kenyatta National Hospital, in 2008; she won the IGCS Travelling Scholarship Award (IGS-International Gynaecologic Cancer Society). In 2009, she won the International Development Award (IDEA) from ASCO-American Society of Clinical Oncology. In 2011, she won the Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical Oncology Passport to the World of Oncology Programme award.
Spending a lot of her time around terminally ill patients has not been without a toll on her. “It is easy to drain in the sorrow and the pain of patients dying of cancer’. Since making it her life goal to help cancer patients, the success stories are what drive her these days. There was a time when the desire to escape poverty is what used to drive her. These days, however, the desire to put a smile on the face of her patients is what keeps her awake at night,” Cimmonne says.